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amid the ever-rushing future

Chapter Text

“Serpentus, stop,” Harry hissed. “No, seriously! Do you want me to do this or not? You’re going to fall!” 

Serpentus blew out his lips in exasperation, but Harry felt he was justified. It didn’t matter that thestrals could fly—it didn’t make them any better at climbing trees. Currently Serpentus was testing that boundary, hooves splayed out across two different branches, wings shifting minutely to compensate for the tree’s sway. He looked astoundingly precarious, and quite silly. Harry was a little more stable with two hands free to hold the trunk.

Below them, Professor Kettleburn was digging something up at the base of the tree. He’d screwed a shovel attachment on in place of his fake hand and had been at it for a good ten minutes. Every so often he plucked out a bit of something and tossed it in a basket near him. Harry was pretty sure it was just some roots, but the deeper Kettleburn dug, the more agitated Serpentus got, and so they now found themselves, doubly invisible in two different ways, clinging to the top of this tree. 

“Stay here,” Harry hissed, and made sure Serpentus did as he started climbing down. He stopped when he was a meter above Kettleburn’s head. The man had wild silvery hair, a prosthetic arm and leg, and enjoyed, so far as Harry could tell, trundling about in the forest making a nuisance of himself and giving the thestrals anxiety. 

Reaching into his robe pocket, Harry pulled out a bag of powder Fred and George had given him a few weeks ago. He took a pinch of it between his fingers and carefully sprinkled it down. Kettleburn didn’t seem to notice as it dusted his hair and back. 

Harry waited a few breaths. Kettleburn twitched, twitched again, scratched at his head, and then scratched at his back. Then he jumped up and started rubbing his back against the tree, huffing in frustration when nothing was alleviated. 

He itched his hand with his spade, looking suspiciously from them to his hole, then to his basket. Muttering below his breath, he de-attached his spade and screwed on his hand attachment, took his basket, and departed.

Harry smiled a bit and came down from the tree. The powder was pretty harmless and would wear off in ten minutes—it didn’t even itch, it just made your skin feel a bit…squirmy. Hopefully Kettleburn would think it was something in the soil.

There was a huge crashing and flapping as Serpentus lost his balance at last, twirling gracelessly down through the canopy to land in an impromptu foreleg-stand before crashing into the tree. 

Harry fell over with laughter, and Serpentus nipped at his ear. 

“S-sorry,” Harry gasped out, and then started wheezing again, curled in the autumn leaves, clutching his stomach. Serpentus ignored him and pushed his nose into the hole Kettleburn had made. 

Harry crawled over, pushed Serpentus’ snout aside, and looked in. At first he couldn’t really make out anything other than dirt, but then he saw something purple peeking through.

Carefully, he covered his hand with the sleeve of his robe and brushed the dirt at the bottom of the hole away, uncovering a strange bumpy purple surface that seemed to expand and contract. He stared at it in confusion for a moment before it shifted, blinking open one of the bumps to stare at him in affront with a pale yellow eye. A toad. 

“Oh, sorry,” Harry whispered. “I’ll cover you back up.” 

It closed its eye again, and he gently re-buried it, scooping in the dirt Kettleburn had dug out. 

“You were just very lucky,” said a voice from behind him. “They are liable to stun those who disturb them, such as that…professor.” 

Three autumns he’d been in the forest, and still he jumped and crashed into the tree in surprise. It was Serpentus’ turn to snort in amusement, as Harry clambered up and brushed himself off, straightening his shoulders as he faced Bane.

“I didn’t know that,” Harry said carefully. 

They considered each other. Bane, twice his height, deep black skin, hair and mane strung with subtle red beads. Harry, scrawny in a robe more patches than anything, hair half out of its braid, clutching a bag he’d made out of an old sweater. 

An old sweater that, during his climb through the tree, had decided to give up the ghost. Everything it had been carrying now lay at his feet—missives from the acromantulae to the merfolk and basilisk, primarily, but also several bugs wrapped in spider silk, and a battered library book. 

Harry bit his lip, knowing Bane was judging him on every aspect of his appearance, behavior, and language. It didn’t make it any better that he just stood there, looking Harry and his fallen belongings over, arms crossed. His eyes flicked over to Serpentus once or twice as well. 

Finally, Bane sighed, reached into the bag he wore across his back, and pulled out a bundle. “This is from my son,” he said grudgingly.
 
Harry’s heart lifted. “Araeo?” 

A deeper, more world-weary sigh. “I have only the one.” 

Harry tossed his ruined bag on the ground and ran forwards, taking the package from Bane and then retreating a meter to open it. Wrapped in a length of fabric was something made of leather. Excitedly, he unrolled it.

It was a beautiful handmade messenger bag. 

Delighted, Harry inspected its many useful pockets and the clever straps along the back that indicated it could also be worn as a rucksack. Across the flap had been embroidered a rough constellation. 

Harry traced the stars, glancing at Bane. “What stars are these?” 

“They are Rukbat, Kaus Australis, Nunki, Ascella, Kaus Media, Sephdar, Albaldah, and Arkab. Together, they form the human constellation Sagittarius. The centaur archer.” 

Harry grinned uncontrollably and showed the bag to Serpentus, who nibbled at the leather curiously. “How did he know?” 

Bane raised one eyebrow. “My son’s prescience is unlike anything seen in centuries. There is a note as well.” He looked like he had provided the information begrudgingly. 

While Harry rustled around for the note, Bane bowed to Serpentus. “Well met, cousin.” Serpentus whinnied and stamped his foot.

“Cousin?” Harry asked, finding the note rolled up in an inner pocket. He smoothed it out carefully. 

“Of a sort,” Bane said. Serpentus walked over to him and Bane carefully stroked his neck. 

Heartkin, read the note. 

Bullied father into taking this to you. Saw your old bag would give out. My uncle made this pack, but I embroidered the stars! To wizards, they are a centaur archer, I’ve heard, but we see these stars as the upper half of a constellation forming a crowned figure. It is called the Queen, King, Seer, Prophet, Hero, Heir, and many more names by various bands. I know it best as the Leader, which at its core means a person who guides. 

Don’t forget about the first of March. My uncle will be waiting to escort you through the territory. 

And ‘ware the evening, Snakeheart. Sad tidings await, and hearts and anger stir. 

Your heartkin,
Araeo

Harry’s happiness at Araeo’s missive lessened as he read that last line. A shiver ran through him.

“I have to get back,” he told Bane and Serpentus, kneeling to start stuffing his things into his new bag. “Bane—will you take this to Araeo? Hold on.” 

He unrolled the note he’d been carrying around for a week, in case he ran into a centaur. Taking out a piece of chalk, he made a few corrections.

Araeo,

Hope you are doing well! I got you this from under the lake—it’s abalone, my friend Parime has a piece that he rubs when he is anxious or sad. I thought you could do the same, or when you need to think, or something.

I hope to hear from you soon. Happy to hear from you. I am looking forward to March 1st. Will I be able to enter centaur territory? Glad Firenze will meet me. Tell him thank you for the bag!!!! And thank you, I love it!!!!

Snake♡

Harry put the revised note back in the little bag that held a piece of thick abalone shell, worn down into a smooth oval. 

“Here,” he said to Bane, handing it to him. “Thank you. I have to get back. Serpentus, will you fly me?” 

Serpentus knelt and let Harry climb onto his back. Harry looked back at Bane, pressing a hand to the pendant under his robe. He could almost feel the pattern, so often had he run his thumb over it. Three trees under three stars. 

Bane was someone to him now. But he didn’t know if he was anyone to Bane. 

But then Bane put a hand to his heart and touched the other to his chin, bowing very slightly. Relieved and warmed, Harry returned the gesture. And then Serpentus took off into the air, leaving Bane behind. 

Chapter Text

At the edge of the forest, Harry slid off of Serpentus, kissing his forehead in thanks. Serpentus whuffled his neck and winged away, leaving Harry alone. 

He faced the castle, trepidation in his heart. September dusk had fallen on Hogwarts, the sunset blazing across the lake. He spotted a few students pushing curfew on the grounds, and made sure his necklace was flipped to press against his skin. He had been gone two weeks, divided between the acromantula camp and the thestral clearing, and the sight of the castle should have been joyful—but with Araeo’s warning echoing in his mind, he was only worried. 

Clutching his new messenger bag close, he walked quickly to the castle, electing to go in the entrance hall, slipping in with some older students. He pressed himself to the stone wall as the evening traffic ebbed around him and opened his mouth to draw in a great breath. 

The magic of the castle rolled across his palate, fragrant and heavy. But mixed in was something—something he hadn’t felt before. Something mournful, and angry, and bleeding. 

It was coming from the kitchens. 

Heart in his throat, Harry threw himself up a staircase, waiting impatiently for students to pass until he could open the little passage in the stone behind a suit of armor’s shield, which moved subtly aside for him to pass. From there he dashed through the passages as quickly as he could, making his way to the lower level boy’s toilet. He waited for long, anxious minutes to be sure no-one was inside, then opened the sink, closed it behind him, and flew down the corridor to the kitchens. 

He tickled the pear and was about to seize the handle when he hesitated. 

Once, he had barged into the kitchen without thinking, and it had ended badly. He never wanted to intrude like that again. He hemmed and hawed outside the door until it was flung open from the inside, nearly smacking him in the face.

Limmy stood there, shoulders heaving, ears flat back against her head, luminous eyes streaming tears. She stared at Harry, her expression absolutely unreadable.

“Limmy!” Harry said, crouching. “Are you—is you alright? What’s happening?” 

Limmy gave a furious cry and hit him in the shoulder—gently, and her fist turned into a grab, and she fell into him, sobbing. He started cry as well, fear and panic exploding out of him, as she clutched him. 

Desperately, he stared beyond her—the kitchen was awash in elves, some crying, some shouting, magic surging through the room.

One of the elves caught sight of him—Harry didn’t know him—and his face crumpled in anger. The elf strode towards him, seizing the elbow of another to tug along.

“You—get out!” yelled the elf. “You isn’t belonging here!” 

Harry stiffened in alarm, but Limmy whipped around, breaking out of his arms. 

“You shut your mouth, Emmy!” Limmy screamed. “You leave Snake alone, he isn’t doing anything!” 

The elf beside Emmy sneered, while Emmy snapped, “You is a know-nothing child, Limmy. You is deluding yourself! You is—you is practically a traitor, with your wizard!” 

Limmy yelled in outrage and leapt at the elf, and they went rolling across the floor in a tangle of punching and kicking. The other elf ran forward and tried to pull Limmy off—Harry twitched to do the same, but thought better of it and stayed right where he was in the doorway.

And then Norry and Tippy were there, crackling with furious magic that sent Limmy and Emmy flying apart from each other. Limmy landed on all fours at Harry’s side and straightened up snarling. Tippy pointed a warning finger at her, and she stayed put. 

Norry had Emmy by the arm. His face looked wan and sickly. “You both shames us,” he hissed. “You shames elfkind’s cause, you shames your families, and you shames my dead brother!" He shook Emmy’s arm. “You thinks you can decides who is traitors?” He pointed at Limmy. “And you thinks you can attacks fellow elves? You is both ill with grief! Who’s brother is being killed? Yours?” 

Emmy’s ears were flat to the sides of his face. He looked terrified, shaking his head quickly. Limmy was staring, ashamed and flushed red, at the floor. 

Norry looked at Harry last. Harry drew back, heart thumping. “Snake,” Norry said, “you is welcome here, and right now no-one has the right to say any different but me.” And he turned and left, pressing a hand to his eyes. 

Limmy hiccuped and leaned into Harry’s side. Emmy and his friend fled at once, and Tippy walked up to the doorway. 

“Limmy, go with Snake,” she said quietly. “I don’t care what Norry is saying, this isn’t a good place for either of you right now. Go calm down. The wake is tomorrow at midnight—Snake, come with her.” 

“Okay,” Harry said shakily. He stood, and Limmy clutched his hand in her trembling fingers. “We is going. I is sorry, Tippy.” 

Tippy shook her head, reached out and patted Harry’s elbow. “You haves no need for sorrow, Snake. Until tomorrow.” 

Limmy followed Harry dully as he pulled her quickly through the halls and into the tunnels. For lack of anywhere better to go, since the basilisk was likely in the den, he took her to Myrtle’s toilet. 

“Snake, you’re back!” Myrtle said, floating down. “Oh—you brought someone.” 

“Myrtle, this is Limmy,” Harry said desperately. “Can we stay here for a bit?” 

Myrtle took in the scene and went and got a loo roll. Harry pulled off a handful to pass to Limmy, and then blew his nose and blotted his own face. 

“What happened?” Myrtle whispered, hiding partly behind Harry’s shoulder while Limmy went to the sink to splash water on her face and scrub at a thin cut across her cheek from her fight. She hadn’t spoken a word since they’d left the kitchen.

“I don’t know,” Harry said. “I think someone died?” 

Limmy spun around, fists clenched at her sides. “No-one is dying,” she grit out, eyes bulbous with fury. “But an elf—Norry’s brother—is being murdered by his master last night.” 

“What?” Harry asked, horror sweeping through him. “Murdered?” 

Limmy picked up the loo roll and hurled it across the room, and then crossed to a stall and began hitting it with her palm, over and over and over. Harry watched her until he couldn’t anymore, and then he grabbed her hands and held them tightly.

“Don’t, Limmy, please,” he said. He dug into his bag and pulled out the library book—one from the free book room. “Here.” 

Limmy gripped the binding and began tearing pages out, fistfuls at a time, twisting and tearing at the cover, and then, panting, she sat down amidst the wreckage and put her head on her knees.

Harry knelt across from her, putting an unsure hand on her shoulder. Myrtle, quite frightened, peeked over a stall to watch. “Limmy? What—he was murdered? Why?” 

Limmy tilted her head to the side and looked at him through glazed, tired eyes. “You isn’t knowing this, I thinks,” she said, voice completely drained. “But elves…we haves to obey our masters.” 

“Y-yeah, I know,” Harry said. 

“You isn’t knowing all of it,” Limmy said. “Because Dumbledore is a good wizard. But most wizards is not, Snake. If elves don’t do as their masters is telling them, elves is being punished—elves is having to punish themselves. Hurt themselves.” 

“What?” Harry said, heart pumping hard in his throat. “What do you mean?” 

“Norry’s brother—Benny.” Limmy screwed a hand into her eye, catching more tears, “Benny is working for a very bad wizard. Benny isn’t doing something right—I don’t know what—he is doing something insufficient. Not good enough. And his master is telling Benny to punish himself by—by—” Limmy hiccuped and seized a paper from the floor, ripping it in half again and again— “by holding his own head under water. And Benny is drowning before his master is telling him to stop.” 

Harry’s head and stomach spun. Lurching to his feet, he made it to a stall before he vomited, the horror of it tearing through him in spasms. 

A cool hand pressed against the back of his neck. Myrtle. She stroked his neck until he felt calmer, and then he went and rinsed his mouth out in the sink and sat beside Limmy, and she put his head on his shoulder and he leaned his cheek against her hair. Slowly, his mind packed the horror of her words away for later.

“Who’s the wizard?” Harry asked after a long while.

Limmy took a trembling breath. “His name is Malfoy. He is coming from a long line of bad wizards. For an elf to go to a Malfoy…that is always a tragedy.” Her voice changed, became harder. “My mother —my mother is being a Malfoy elf.” She gave a long, slow shudder and single sob. 

Horror seized Harry entirely. “Did—did she?” 

Limmy nodded. Shaking, Harry put an arm around her and pulled her as close as possible. 

She spoke soft and low. “The Malfoy elves is being the first to be reclaimed.” 

Nodding, Harry held her as fiercely as he could.

After a while Myrtle came and rested across from them, looking unsure. 

“Sorry about your friend,” she told Limmy.

“I isn’t knowing him, but thank you,” Limmy said dully, lifting her head up and rubbing at her eyes. “You is Myrtle, yes?”

“Yes,” Myrtle said, pushing her glasses up her nose. “Do I know you?”

“No, Snake is telling me about you.” 

“Oh. He told me about you, too.” 

They stared at each other. Then Myrtle said the exact right thing. “One time Lucius Malfoy made fun of me crying in here, and I scared him so badly he peed himself and avoided this whole floor for a month.” 

Limmy snorted and took a tissue Harry offered her. “You is a hero to us all.” She took a deep breath, then another, then another. “Okay, Snake. I is going to be with my family. Show me how to gets near the Hufflepuff dorm in your tunnels? And tomorrow at half past eleven, meet me outside the kitchen.”

“Okay.” Harry scrambled up and opened the sink. “Thanks, Myrtle. I’ll visit soon and tell you about my trip.” 

“Thank you,” Limmy said as well, meeting Myrtle’s eyes. 

“Anytime,” said Myrtle. “It’s a good toilet for crying, after all.”

Chapter Text

“The Harvest Moon approaches us in a few weeks. An ancient time of blessing. The Chinese call it the Chrysanthemum moon. Does anyone know why? Anyone? Yes, Mr. Prewett?” 

“Because the moon appears to change color, professor. And it’s Weasley.”

“Quite correct, Mr. Weasley, yes. It appears to turn the color of a chrysanthemum—how lovely. And does anyone know why we call it a harvest moon? Yes?” 

“Um, because…we like to farm?” 

Harry yawned behind his hand. He’d always sworn never to be one of those rude students that slept in Trelawney’s class, but this time he just couldn’t help it. The incident with Limmy had disturbed him so much that he’d come home distraught and over-exhausted, completely unable to calm down and sleep. He had finally drifted off in the early morning to the basilisk hissing a rhythmic poem, but he’d woken late for classes.

He’d made himself go to divination just to think about something else, but it was hard. 

“The harvest moon is a time to bring in what we have sown. What loose ends can you take care of? What past intentions now see ripening fruit?” 

Someone snorted. Harry blinked his eyes open and tried to focus. Loose ends. Past intentions. 

Limmy’s wand. 

“Let us watch a harvest moon.” Trelawney rose from her cushion and took a model moon from the shelf. “Would someone in the back please close the curtain? A crack of light is coming through, I think.” 

“Oh no, not a crack of light,” muttered someone, but Harry barely heard it over sudden blinding panic. A student was moving towards the curtain. He pressed his amulet so tight against his skin it hurt, held his breath, and tried to make sure no part of him was touching the curtain, which was hard, because most of him was touching the curtain.

The student closed the gap and went to sit back down. 

“Thank you, er…thank you. Now, let us watch our closest neighbor perform her celestial magic.” 

Harry created a new, tiny gap in the curtains down towards the bottom, and poked his eye out to see the room had been plunged into complete darkness, save the model moon. It shone so brightly it seemed to waver and magnify as Harry stared at it, drowsily entranced.

“Watch as our blushing cosmic sister crosses the sky, urging us to think on what we shall reap,” whispered Trelawney. 

A few students giggled. Harry stared at the moon.

Starting on one side of the room, the pale rose model slowly drifted through space. Such was the darkness that Harry, exhausted and depleted, felt as though he was in the night sky, drifting along with the moon.

Slowly, slowly, it described its arc, and it seemed to grow bigger and bigger as it did, until Harry could see nothing but that rosy light. 

The rosy light blinked. It was no moon. It was a single red eye, trapping Harry within its gaze. 

He did a slow somersault through space. That was silly. It wasn’t an eye, it was the mouth of a cavern, glowing with inner light, crystal stalactites like a mermaid’s mouthful of teeth. 

Harry, untethered from the memory of gravity, started to spin without slowing. Why had he thought it was a cavern? The moon was a pool of red blood on white fur. 

He drifted dizzily through black space, but no matter where he turned, the moon was there. 

And then it winked out of existence. 

“Wasn’t that lovely?”

Harry fell from space into his body, blinded as the low lights came back on. Chatter erupted throughout the room. 

“That was really pretty!” 

“How does it actually get that red?” 

“Did you see Weasley and Wood up there?” 

“Yeah, romantic.” 

“Hey, cram it!” 

“Whatever, Wood!” 

“Percy, you’re as red as the harvest moon.” 

Trelawney cleared her throat. “We will all be watching our satellite’s display in person in a few weeks. In the meantime, meditate on what the harvest moon could mean for you, and bring at least four paragraphs to next class.” 

Scattered groans. Harry took it all in in a sort of daze. He felt half-asleep still. He slumped there as the class clambered down from the tower. 

Trelawney didn’t leave immediately as she usually did. Instead she took something from the shelf—her crystal ball, the depths swirling white. Settling it on her small table, she stared into it as she scratched a quill along parchment beside it.

Harry had seen her go into a trance and speak a prophecy once before. This was not that. She frowned, lips pinching to the side, scribbling down whatever she observed. After a few minutes she sat back and read over what she’d written, massaging her temples. Then she sighed, put down the paper, and left the room.

Still feeling a bit floaty, Harry crept out from the curtains and over to her desk, peering in the dim light at the parchment. 

Red, white, black 
Fur, scales, teeth
Tripartate
Retina? 
The Harvest Moon—loose ends? To be picked up, or eliminated?

Harry read the notes a few times, and then left the tower. Forget classes. He needed sleep before tonight. 

small blue sprout

Harry stood nervously in the corridor by the kitchen, feeling exposed and vulnerable not being invisible—but Limmy wouldn’t be able to see him if he was. 

He plucked at his robe anxiously. Neither he nor the basilisk had ever been to a wake, but the basilisk thought wizards wore black. Harry had a black robe, but it was pretty patchy. All his clothes were. So he had simply worn the robe, and the only other jewelry he’d added besides the necklaces he always wore—a mer pearl, Chikkeritt’s pendant, and the Stargazer crest—was the yarn friendship bracelet Limmy had given him a long time ago, the one with a little blue wooden charm.

He crouched against the wall and lurked miserably. 

“Snake?” 

He looked up. Limmy was trotting down the hall, dressed in a green tea towel.  

“I thought I was supposed to wear black,” Harry said. “I’m sorry.” 

“Don’t be silly,” Limmy said. She pinched his robe between her fingers. He felt her twitch the magic in the air and the cloth, and then his robe was the same shade of green as hers. “It’s usually black, anyway, but today we breaks tradition in order to makes a statement. About the unity and purpose of elfkind.” 

“I isn’t wanting to—to upset elves,” Harry said seriously. “If they thinks I isn’t meant to be there—to, to be with elves, then—”

“Snake,” Limmy said sharply, cutting him off. “This isn’t about you.” 

Abashed, Harry shut his mouth. 

Limmy slashed a hand through the air. “It is about the future of elfkind, and what kind of elves we wants to be—and whether we wants to face the world alone, or not. And we must not—we must haves allies, we must haves friends, or we haves no future at all.” 

She stared at him until he nodded to show he understood. “And if anyone is trying to pick a fight with you tonight, you come get me. Not that I is leaving your side.” 

“Alright,” Harry said, reassured.

Limmy took his hand, bumping her bracelet against his—it was the thestral hair bracelet he’d made her. “Come on. We is going to the ground floor courtyard.” 

“What if someone sees us?” 

“Professor Dumbledore knows,” Limmy said. “He is respectful of elf customs. No-one is stopping or bothering us. But you should turns invisible until we gets there.” 

“Alright.” He flipped his amulet against his skin, and she redoubled her grip and pulled him along the corridor.

It was strange to walk with someone at night—usually he was alone and invisible, practically a ghost. 

“Can I takes mangoes?” Limmy whispered.

“What? Oh.” Harry managed a smile, remembering they’d never finished the game they’d been playing before he left for the acromantulae camp. “No, you can’t takes mangoes.” 

“Can I takes…an apple?”

“Yeah, you can takes an apple.” 

“Hm.” 

They played until they arrived at the courtyard. It was one of Harry’s favorite places in the castle, open to the air but protected from the elements by an invisible spell. There were stone benches, statues, and wild-growing plants.

Tonight, it sparkled with light. Elflights, hovering over the shoulders of their elves, who mingled solemnly, dressed in identical green. Limmy lit her blue light, letting it come free from her finger and hover. 

“Come on, Snake,” she said softly. 

“You is sure no wizards is here?” Harry asked hesitantly.

“Professor Dumbledore is promising.”

Taking a deep breath, Harry flipped his necklace back around. Elf eyes flicked to him as he lit his elflight and coaxed it to float above his shoulder, a feat that took a few moments. The eyes on him felt scalding.

“Ears up,” Limmy murmured, letting go of his hand. “You is with me.” 

“Ears up,” Harry repeated. 

Limmy began to drift through the crowd, and Harry followed. He couldn’t help glancing uneasily around, feeling dreadfully exposed, out in the castle, fully visible. Even someone looking down into the courtyard from a window might see him. But if Limmy trusted that Dumbledore would ensure their privacy, then there was nothing he could do but trust her too. 

He followed Limmy to Norry, who was standing on the far end of the courtyard beside a stone bench. The bench had been covered in green and yellow flowers, little notes, and small baubles. A bead, a necklace, a piece of bread. Harry dug around in his pockets, coming up, to his relief, with a handful of thestral hairs. He braided them together quickly while Limmy talked in a low voice to Norry. When she stepped aside, laying a small smooth stone on the bench, Harry stepped up and laid his newly-made bracelet beside it. 

Norry watched him, nodding in approval. “Thank you for coming, Snake,” he said. “I appreciates your presence.” 

“I is so sorry about your brother, Norry,” Harry said softly. “And I wants you to know—I wants you to know—the promise I is making you?” He had to pull his cuff back from his hand, the sleeves were too long on him. Norry took his hand, brushing a thumb over the black circle on his skin. Harry said the words he’d practiced with the basilisk. “This is a promise to elfkind. This is a promise to Benny. That when you is calling me, I is coming.” 

Norry swallowed hard and gave a firm nod. He pulled Harry down and clapped the back of his neck. “You is a good person, Snake. We is lucky to haves you.” He released him. “Go eat. Elf wakes is not just for sorrow. They is for calcifying.” 

“Calcifying?” Harry asked.

“Creating resolution. Strength in belief. Coming together in purpose. Go and be together with us.” 

“Right.” 

Limmy took his hand and led him away. Elves quieted as they walked by and got louder as they passed. Little floating trays of food hovered about the courtyard, and Limmy took him to one near a unicorn topiary. Harry took a little cake decorated with stars and ate it slowly. It was delicious, but it settled like lead in his stomach. He and Limmy ate in silence for several minutes, watching the bobbing elf lights, like rainbow fireflies.

And then an elf marched up to them, hands on her hips. Harry stiffened, but the elf stopped a foot from him and stuck out her hand. 

“Snake,” she said. “I is Orry. I is hearing what you is saying to Norry, and I approves very much. I wants to tell you that I appreciates your support.” 

Harry bent and took her hand, and she gave it a firm shake. 

“Thank you,” Harry said, touched. 

“Elfkind is needing allies in the upcoming times,” Orry said loudly. The ears of elves around them twitched towards her, even those who were pretending not to listen. “Those who disagrees is not seeing clearly that elfkind on our own is in for a long, hard fight.” And she gave his hand one more firm pump, turned, and walked away, her golden zigzag elflight giving off sparks. 

Harry and Limmy stared after her for a moment. 

Limmy reached for another cake. “Can I takes a teapot?” 

“No,” Harry said automatically. “But you can takes a kettle.” 

Limmy scowled. 

They played the game for a while off to the side. Occasionally elves came up to talk to Limmy or to stare curiously at him, but no-one confronted him again, for better or for worse. Toddy, his friend from the laundry room, came over to briefly join in the game, but left in frustration when he couldn’t figure out the trick fast enough.

Tippy and Drippy joined them after half an hour or so, with pink and grey elflights respectively. 

“Norry is telling us what you is saying,” Drippy said to Harry. “Thank you.” 

“You don’t—you isn’t needing to thanks me,” Harry said fiercely. “I is meaning it.” 

Drippy patted his arm. 

Tippy pointed to the elflight on his shoulder. “You is making that?” 

Harry raised a hand to pet his little light. “Yes. Limmy is teaching me.” 

Tippy crossed her arms, a frown across her face. “Limmy is teaching other elves some things about magic too. About how wizard magic and elf magic is coming from different places. And you can do elf magic.” 

A small flame of panic flashed through Harry. “Yes,” he said, glancing at Limmy. 

“Mm-hm,” Tippy said. She looked at Limmy too. 

Limmy scowled. “Mind your business, Tippy.” 

“Don’t speak to me that way,” Tippy said. She shrugged. “Come on, Drippy, let's leaves these two their secrets. Noddy wants to speak to us.”

The elves left, leaving a bit of fizzing panic in their wake. 

“You isn’t telling anyone yet?” Harry asked. “That you does…you knows?” Wizard magic, he meant. 

“No,” Limmy said shortly. “And I isn’t going to until the very last minute. It’s too dangerous, Snake, for anyone to knows.” 

“Yeah,” Harry said. He hesitated. “You remembers—your gift?” 

“My—” Limmy’s ears flicked. “Yes. What about it?” 

“I is going to hurry up…making it.” 

“Good,” Limmy said shortly. “I is excited to opens it.” 

Harry grabbed a cake and stuffed it in his mouth. 

“Can I takes ribbon?” Limmy asked suddenly.

Harry smirked. “Yes.”

“Can I takes a bobbin? A spool of thread? A needle?” 

“Yes!” Harry laughed. “Finally!”
 
Limmy grinned. “I is excited to torture Toddy with this.” 

Chapter Text

There was a red rope bisecting the library. He had only crossed it once before. The books beyond were liable to scream.

Holding his breath and clutching the strap of his bag, Harry ducked under.

Myrtle floated nervously behind him, phasing through the rope. “The restricted section? I think a third year dared me to go back here once. I didn’t do it, because the last person who did got detention for a month. They said a book ate one of her hands.” 

A shiver went up Harry’s spine. “Don’t say that,” he whispered. He checked to make sure his pendant was resting against his skin. 

“This is alright so far,” Myrtle said, floating up to the top of a stack and back down, waving her arms. “Being out of my toilet again, I mean. It’s not so bad. But also, there’s no-one here. And I have you. I know you.” 

“You’d know Fred and George and Lee,” Harry said, holding up his elflight to read the plaque on the nearest shelf. Curses was all it said. Unease pricked the back of his neck. He moved on. 

“Yes,” Myrtle said reluctantly. “But they’re different. They’re…loud. And there would be so many more people.” 

“You wouldn’t have to stay the whole meal.” The next plaque just said Desires. Harry bit his lip. This section of the library unnerved him. 

“I suppose,” Myrtle agreed. “Maybe…maybe just a few minutes. For the first time.” 

“You can be invisible for it if you want, even,” Harry said. “I think it would be good for you, though.” Dreams was next, followed by Death, Echoes, and Ennui. 

Myrtle made a noncommittal noise, shoving her head through a bookshelf. “There’s a book in here that’s dripping,” she said.

Harry twisted his hands around his bag strap. “Dripping what?” 

“Dunno.” 

Harry took a deep breath to settle his nerves. “Come on, I wonder if they have….” He set off at a trot down the stacks, Myrtle following him in her most eerie manner: flickering out of existence in one spot and appearing a few stacks down with jerky, uncoordinated movements. 

He stopped them at ’S’ and read carefully. “A-ha. Secrets.” 

“That sure is your stack, if there ever was one,” Myrtle said. “You’re only secrets, Snake.” 

“Not,” Harry muttered. “I’m also…riddles. And, um. Uh. H-hair.” 

Myrtle flipped the end of his messy braid, which reached just below his shoulders. “Riddles are a type of secret, I think. But yeah, you are hair. Why can’t you brush everything into the braid?”

“It just doesn’t go,” Harry muttered, examining the spines of the Secret books. “’S too thick to all fit.” 

“I suppose it’s better than having pigtails forever,” Myrtle said. “Look, here’s something. Keep it Secret, Keep it Safe. No subtitle.” 

“Does it look like it’ll scream?” Harry asked nervously.

Myrtle stuck her head into it. “Er, not from in here, at least. Want it?” 

“Sure.” Harry braced himself. Myrtle removed the book...and nothing happened. He sighed in relief. Myrtle gave it to him, and he peeked at the table of contents. 

I. So You’ve Found a Ring of Power
II. Diagnostic Quiz: Which Ring did you Find? 
III. Properties Explained
IV. Could Others be After your Precious? 
V. Evasion Techniques 

Harry passed it back to Myrtle. “No good.” 

She put it back on the shelf and floated up a few more. “How about this? It’s just called Hiding Your Stuff.” 

“I’ll take it,” Harry said, adding Guises and Semblances: Transfiguring Your Treasure from the bottom shelf.

“Here’s Distant Friends: Unpicking Portkey Magic. Why’s this one here?”

“Um.” Something sparked in Harry’s mind. He didn’t know what, but it was there. “What’s a portkey?”

“You touch it and it takes you someplace else.” 

“Yes, yeah, give me that one.” 

Myrtle dropped it down to him. 

“This is probably enough,” he decided. “I’m just going to pop by the free book room, and then we can leave.” 

“Free book room?” Myrtle did a triple summersault through the stacks. “I didn’t know we had one of those.” 

“Well, you’ve only been to the library once in like…since you died,” Harry said. “Things change.” 

“Change is the only constant,” Myrtle said spookily, and hung in a backbend behind Harry as he left the restricted section.

The free book room appeared to be locked for the evening. But Harry had unlocked it before. He didn’t even need alohomora to do it. He just pushed a little magic down his arms and yanked

Myrtle was already inside, having floated through the wall. She lounged in the cozy armchair, kegs kicked up over the top. 

“Wow,” Harry said, looking around. “It’s…messier.” 

Normally the room was quite tidy. But tonight scribbled parchment lay scattered about, bookmarks and scraps of paper stuck out of books, and an abandoned mug of tea sat on the table. Harry picked up a piece of parchment, but could make neither heads nor tails of the script—it was written in symbols he didn’t recognize. 

“These are weird books,” Myrtle said nervously, nudging Magick Moste Evile towards him. It was an ancient tome, and multiple pages were folded over. “Are you sure this is a free book room?” 

“It always has been,” Harry said. He flipped open Ka, Ba, Akh: The Tripartate Soul, to a random illustration of a series of jars with animal heads on them. “But maybe Severus is using it as a study room too. Or…” 

He lost his train of thought, pulling a thin book from the bottom of a pile. Destroying the Indestructible: Spells of Absolute Eradication.

Harry had something he very much wished to destroy. 

“I’ll take this one,” Harry said decisively. “Alright, let’s go.” 

“I don’t know, Snake,” Myrtle said. “These books don’t seem like they’re…safe.” 

Harry shrugged. “So what?” 

Myrtle said nothing more, but frowned as she followed him to the librarian’s desk, where he stamped his books. 

“Let’s see if Jade Eyes is home,” Harry said. 

“The anthropologist?” 

“Yep.” Harry led her down the hallway, and they stopped in front of a small painting of a golden wheat field. Sleeping coiled in the corner was a small golden snake.

“Hello Jade Eyes,” Harry said, making the conscious effort to speak in the snake language.

Jade Eyes stirred, opening one eye, then the other. He shimmied in happiness when he saw Harry. “Ah, Snake! Good to see you! And who is this?”

“This is my friend Myrtle.” Harry tried to switch back to English. “Myrtle, this is Jade Eyes. Am I speaking English?” 

“Yes,” Myrtle said. “Sort of hissy English.” 

“Sssello,” Jade Eyes said slowly, stretching his mouth around the syllables. “I sssam Jade Eyesss. Nissse ssso meetsss youss.” 

Myrtle smiled. “You speak English! Wow!” 

“Sssonly a bitsss,” said Jade Eyes. “I sssam…ssstudent.” 

“You give Snake riddles for me, right?” Myrtle asked. “Do you have any more? I like them a lot.” 

Jade Eyes thought for a moment. “Yesss.” He switched back to the snake language. “The more you take, the more you leave behind. What am I?” 

Harry translated for Myrtle. She floated upside down, thinking. 

As she ruminated, Harry showed his books to Jade Eyes. “Do you know anything about magically hiding?” 

“Hiding…” Jade Eyes said. “Yes, of course. Snakes are excellent at hiding. Who are you wishing to hide from? Filch?” 

“No, I need to hide an object. So no-one but myself and another person can ever find it.” 

“Hiding an object,” hissed Jade Eyes. “Fits right in to a category of magic I have recently created, in addition to creation and negation. You may not have noticed, but such a binary left…gaps. As such, I have created a third categorization under which concealing something through enchantment may find its home. That is: conversion. How is this different from creation or negation, you rightly ask? By conversion I mean not converting something from one thing to another, which would surely still fall under creation or negation, depending, of course, on the timespan of the transformation—a separate thing altogether—but by converting the properties of a thing such as you interact with them.

“For example, chasing the color of a thing. The essential nature of the thing has not changed—your perception has, for color lies in the eye of the beholder! Or spells which cause physical sensation—the sensation is felt by the affected party only. I would think concealment fits quite well into my new classification. By means of conversion, you would affect who can perceive the thing, yes?” 

“Yes,” Harry agreed, mind spinning. Three- and four-syllable words floated through his head. 

“Footsteps!” Myrtle exclaimed.

Jade Eyes broke off his diatribe and grinned at her, as much as a snake could. “Quite right!” 

“Do you have another?” 

Harry yawned widely. “I’m exhausted; I’m going to go home.” 

“I’ll stay,” Myrtle said. “You can tell me riddles, Jade Eyes, it’ll help practice your English.” 

Jade Eyes looked immensely pleased at this. Harry bid them both goodnight and departed. 

small blue sprout

“Snakeheart?” 

The basilisk had waited up for him. Its moonlike yellow eyes glinted in the den, the rest of its immense, faintly-glowin body draped along the perimeter. 

“‘Lo,” Harry said. He took off his robe and picked up his toothbrush, taking it out to the little stream.

The basilisk followed him, its tongue flicking out. “You smell exhausted, Snakeheart.” 

Harry shrugged, finished brushing his teeth and scrubbed cold water onto his face. “Want to read with me?” 

“Of course,” said the basilisk. “But what about sleep?” 

“I’ll sleep,” Harry said. The he sighed. “If I can. I couldn’t last night, after the wake. I had nightmares.” 

“Read until your mind calms,” suggested the basilisk. “And I will guard your slumber.” 

“Alright.” Harry shuffled in to the den, putting on his pajamas—just an older, tattier robe—and curling up against his glow stone. He opened Hiding Your Stuff to the first page and started to slowly read aloud, the basilisk interjecting occasionally to correct his pronunciation or explain a word. 

By the end of chapter one his eyes were drooping. Halfway through chapter two his head started to bob between sentences, but he always woke up again abruptly, with the sensation of breathlessness and falling into water. 

The basilisk put its head against his side and began to hum, softly but in a way that shook through his whole body, sleepy vibrations. The next time he nodded off, he stayed asleep. 

Chapter Text

“Finite!” Harry cried, wand pointed at the spell barrier. His magic crackled down his arm and out his wand, but it hissed and dissipated once it met the sickly green magic that crouched over the basilisk’s eggs. He grunted in frustration. “Finite!” Again, it fizzled. He panted slightly. He didn’t know how long he’d been doing this. 

Frowning fiercely, he crouched down and consulted his notes, scribbled by memory after observing the twins’ Defense Against the Dark Arts class. If anything was dark arts—and Harry wasn’t sure what, precisely, qualified—he thought Riddle's curse was probably it.

Finite — counter-spell. Use to stop another spell from working. “M” wand movement. RELAX ARM. Make sure elbow not too crooked. Don’t get distracted. 

Breathing deep, Harry stood up and repositioned himself like he’d seen the DADA teacher stand. He held his wand hand in front of him, made sure his elbow wasn’t too crooked but also wasn’t too stiff, and cast again. “Finite!” 

The spell fizzled.

“Finite! Finite! Finite!” His magic was jumping down his arm in little static bursts. Sweat beaded across his forehead. His free hand shook. “Finite! Finite! FINITE!” 

His hand spasmed, and weakness shot from his wrist up to his elbow. He dropped his wand, hand refusing to hold it anymore, and then he fell to his knees, panting. Tears of frustration pricked at his eyes and he scrabbled to pick up his wand, but couldn’t make his hand cooperate.

“Snakeheart, that is enough!” hissed the basilisk. It knocked his wand away from him with its tail, placing itself between him and the curse. “Stop this! You are going to hurt yourself if you continue. This is not the way to success.” 

“It’s supposed to get rid of spells!” Harry said furiously. “Why isn’t it working!” 

“Calm down,” ordered the basilisk. “Riddle’s spell is simply more powerful. There’s no sense continuing to try the same thing when it has proven ineffective.” 

Harry sniffed and rubbed at his nose, which was running. 

“Go eat,” said the basilisk. “And then sleep. No more tonight.”

small blue sprout

“Now hold out your dominant hand, and say ‘up’!” 

“UP!” 

Down two lines of students, flying broomsticks rolled over, drifted sideways, and, in the case of a few students, leapt directly up to smack their palms. 

“Wow, Cho!” one girl said enviously. “You must be a natural.” 

Cho, a girl with cropped black hair and striking black eyes, grinned proudly, slinging one leg over her broomstick.

“Not yet, Miss Chang!” called Madam Hooch, where she was soothing a boy whose broom had knocked him in the nose. “Wait for the rest!” 

Cho pouted. Harry, invisible and as close as he felt he could safely get, pouted as well. 

He couldn’t believe he’d never known about flying class. He supposed he hadn’t started following Fred and George around soon enough to attend their classes at the start of term, but still. Today regular classes had been suspended for something called ‘tryouts’—Harry didn’t know what people were trying out for, but he had gone to the grounds that morning on a whim and found this marvelous lesson. 

He wanted to try saying “up” so badly it made his heart ache. 

But he settled for watching Cho, who had very black eyes indeed. For some reason he kept noticing that. 

As Madam Hooch corrected another student, Cho winked at the girl beside her, stepped over her broom, and began to quietly float a meter in the air. 

The girl beside her giggled, and finally succeeded at getting her own broomstick to leap to her hand. 

“Are you going to tryouts after this, Katie?” Cho asked, wobbling a little back and forth. “I’m going. I know first years can’t join, but I still want to watch. To know what I’m up for next year.” 

“Course I am,” the girl, Katie, said. “Two Gryffindor girls in second year are trying out; I’ve got to cheer them on. Solidarity.” 

Cho nodded in agreement. “Solidarity.” 

Madam Hooch didn’t take the class further then hovering that day, but Harry felt electrified all the same. He stood slightly to the side of the rows of students, mimicking their posture and balance without a broom. 

When class was over, Hooch packed away the brooms in a little shed, and most of the class dispersed back to the castle. Cho and Katie, however, set off for the pitch.

Harry followed.

He wasn’t sure what the pitch was for, but perhaps he was about to find out. He’d only ever heard it called that—“The Pitch.” There were weird hoops on either end, very high in the air, and stands rising up around the perimeter. 

Harry listened to Cho and Katie chatter, and his mouth dropped open when they got close enough to the pitch to see it was filled with flying students—all wearing odd robes in their house colors, some of them with helmets, some batting around balls with sticks or hands, some flying aimlessly. 

Harry had stopped, mouth agape, to watch, and had to hurry after Cho and Katie as they climbed the stands to sit next to…Percy Weasley, who had his head in a book. Harry’s eyes were immediately drawn to his nose, which was very button-like.

“Hello, Percy,” Katie said, as they settled down. “Here to cheer your brothers on?”

Harry squinted up into the air. Sure enough, there were Fred and George—worryingly, with bats. And there, too, was Charlie, hovering above everyone and observing. 

Percy snorted. “No.” He paused. “Oliver.” 

Katie giggled. “That’s sweet.” 

Percy blushed enormously and stuck his nose in his book. Harry found Oliver floating in front of three goalposts, and suddenly everything made sense. 

This must be Quidditch. 

Quidditch was the only thing Oliver ever talked about in divination, whether they were doing dreams, tea leaves, or crystal balls. So in a bizarre way, Harry realized, he already knew quite a lot about quidditch, or at least the things Wood talked about. He just hadn’t known it was played on brooms, here on the pitch. 

“Quidditch,” he whispered.

“Did you say something?” Percy asked Katie.

“No. Ooh, they’re starting,” Katie said, as the players converged on the grass. “Wonder who they’re trying out first?” 

“Beaters, looks like,” said Cho. 

Harry watched with delight as Fred, George, and a few other students soared into the air, welding bats with a kind of glee that might have scared Harry had he not known the twins. 

He watched the tryouts in a pleased sort of daze, his whole being filled with a bone-deep longing to be out there with them, flying and diving and hitting and catching…but mostly flying. Fred and George made the team—they flew in easy synchronicity, barely needing words to communicate. Angelina and Alicia also got on, both of whom Harry sort of knew from following the twins’ classes. 

He discerned that Charlie was in charge of things—he was the one directing everything—but Wood stuck close to him as well, taking notes on a scroll of parchment. Percy occasionally glanced up from his book to watch him. 

Katie and Cho chattered the whole way through, giving Harry some insight into team strategy. At more than one point, he found himself almost opening his mouth to contribute. 

“I’m going to stay for Ravenclaw as well,” Cho said, when the Gryffindor tryouts had wrapped up. “What about you all?” 

“No,” Percy said, tucking his book under his arm. 

“I will,” Katie said. 

Harry leaned forward to tell Cho that he would stay too, and the breath had barely made it out of his lungs before he had clapped a hand over his mouth, horrified at his lapse. 

As quietly as he could, he climbed down from the stands. He started towards the castle, glancing back just once to stare at the flyers in the air. 

small green sprout

“Maybe the centaurs or merfolk know something,” Harry said. “Maybe they know something about Riddle, or some magic….” 

The basilisk shook its head. “No.” 

“What? Why?” 

The basilisk coiled around the barrier around the eggs, brushing the bottom of its chin against the dome. “I do not want them knowing. I do not want anyone knowing. I do not want to put them in more danger.” 

“You tell your friends in the deeps!” Harry protested. 

“They are my kindred. They are not…nations. Nations who might seek to use this information against me, somehow.” 

“They wouldn’t!” Harry said, though, at the back of his mind, he wasn’t sure.

“They have before,” the basilisk hissed fiercely. “I told one wizard, and he wrought desolation. I do not want anyone else knowing of my children’s existence.” 

“Alright,” Harry said, defeated and suspecting the basilisk was correct. 

small blue sprout

“Go on, Angelina, give it your best,” said the twin Harry had decided was George, spreading his arms dramatically wide. “Don’t spare me! Let no sentiment stand in the way of your casting!” 

Angelina rolled her eyes, suppressing a smile, and cast. “Petrificus totalus!” 

George’s legs froze, but not the rest of him. Fred laughed uproariously as Fred fell forward but caught himself on his hands, shoving himself onto his back. He grinned up at Angelina. “At least you left me my best feature—my words!” 

“Not on purpose,” said Angelina.

“Let’s see here, let’s see,” said the professor, coming to examine George. “Well done on the legs, Miss Johnson, but let’s see what we can do about your range.” 

Harry sat slumped at a desk, kicking his legs moodily. He didn’t much care about the full body bind. What would a body bind do against Riddle’s curse? 

Alicia took a go at Fred, and Harry put his head on the table and looked away. It wasn’t fair. Nothing was fair. He wanted to fly, he wanted to talk to Cho, he wanted to free the eggs, and he couldn’t do a single one of those things. 

The basilisk kept saying it wasn’t worth him getting hurt, it wasn’t worth him exhausting himself, it wasn’t worth it. 

The basilisk didn’t understand. Maybe it thought the eggs meant nothing to Harry, but it was wrong. They were his cousins, or siblings, or—or just family, and family didn’t leave each other to suffer.

He wanted them free. He wanted them happy. He wanted them alive. 

This class was a waste of time. 

He slid off his stool and left, trusting that the students would put a randomly opening door down to ghosts. If they didn’t, well, he didn’t much care. 

small blue sprout

“You’re in a mood,” Myrtle said, the ball he had lobbed quite hard at her passing right through her stomach. “This isn’t very fun.” 

Harry kicked a stall door. 

“A foul mood,” Myrtle said crossly. She threw the ball at him; it bounced off his head. Then she sank into a toilet. “Go away and come back when you’ve decided to be a person.” 

“I am a person!” Harry shouted, and stomped out the door.

He skulked the corridors, being incredibly creepy and walking right behind students. He poked Adrian Pucey’s side, who yelled at the innocent Roger Davies. It did not make him feel better. 

He found Percy and Oliver Wood sitting side-by side in a window seat, talking quietly. For some reason, this made him inexplicably more angry, and he grabbed Wood’s bag and threw it on the ground, scattering books everywhere. 

Wood jumped up from the seat, looking wildly up and down the corridor. “Peeves,” he muttered. “I swear, Snape needs to have another talk with the Baron.” 

Harry stood there as Wood gathered his things, feeling irrationally like the victim in all of this. He kicked a wall, making Percy jump, and went home. 

small blue sprout

The Ravaging Incantation. Beware: this spell was not named lightly. It is categorized as a spell, not a curse, by the barest hair's breath on the Curse Classification Codex. In locales where this spell has left scars, it is called “the ruiner.” 

“Abolefaceo omnis,” Harry muttered. He traced the wand movement with his open hand: a swift arc followed by a forward thrust. 

“Snakeheart,” said the basilisk. “Are you sure about this?” 

Harry ran a hand over the cover of Destroying the Indestructible: Spells of Absolute Eradication. “Yes,” he said. “We need a more powerful spell. You said so. This one is.” 

“But are you sure you can do it correctly?” asked the basilisk. 

“Yes,” Harry said. He closed the book. “Stand back.” 

The basilisk pressed itself back against the wall, its body shielding Harry’s things. “Snakeheart.” 

“I can do it,” Harry said. 

He pointed his wand at the curse. Sickly green like an infection, it crouched there and leered at him. 

The book had said you had to want to destroy something. 

Well, he more than wanted to destroy this spell. He needed to. He had to. 

He would. 

Keeping his breathing slow, his arm bent, his body relaxed, he pointed his bone-white wand at the barrier. His magic leapt through his chest, rushed down his arm like a river. 

“Snakeheart?” 

“Abolefaceo omnis!” 

His perception fractured into sensations. 

A jet of green light. A concussive wave. A noise louder than anything he had ever heard. Pain. Flying. Falling. 

“SNAKEHEART!” 

Darkness. 

Chapter Text

“Hi, Ava,” Harry said quietly in Mermish. 

“Hi Snake,” Ava said. “Good to see you.” 

“You too. Thanks for letting me come over on short notice.” 

Harry swallowed his diver’s breath and slid into the water, feeling his body relax despite himself as the water took his weight. He blinked open new eyes, seeing in the strange spectrum that merfolk did: through light, and other ways, too. 

They swam silently down to the Flats, and then started towards Ava’s house. It was hard swimming with one arm immobilized, but Harry didn’t say a word. Finally, Ava pulled him to a stop, fed up.

“Snake,” she said tentatively. “What happened? I’m worried. You didn’t say much.” 

Harry shrugged. His chest felt hot and shivery. He sniffed, which wasn’t a good thing to do underwater, but it was a reflex. 

“You’ll have to tell my mothers anyway, and I’ll find out,” Ava said crossly, her eyes slanting downwards with anger. 

Harry jerked his good arm from her grip and swam on, off-balance and angry. Ava followed him, emanating fury. 

The sight of Deep Light, which usually made him feel at ease, just made him more upset. A feeling like shame welled up. Merfolk were good at shame. 

Ava swatted aside the net and threw her weapons in a bowl sullenly, holding it out to him. He shook his head. He didn’t even have his wand. 

Xara was in the kitchen, hanks of thread draped over one large shoulder while she drank from a narrow-necked bottle. When she spotted him, she corked it quickly before the liquid could transfuse into the water and came and gave him a hug, gentle around his arm. 

“Hello, Sa-nek,” she said warmly, pressing her forehead to his.

“Hello, Aunt Xara,” he replied, glad, despite himself, to be held by her. “Um. Thank you for having me on short notice. The basilisk says…” he took a deep breath. “The basilisk thanks you.” 

“Of course.” She bumped the top of his head with her chin. “Put your things away. I’ll be weaving if you want to come watch.”

It was not a request, much as it sounded like one. 

Harry put his things into his chest in Ava’s closet, putting on a purple tail-wrap that billowed around his legs in the water. It was hard to put on with one hand, but Ava had gotten in her hammock and turned her back to him.

He felt incredibly bad all of the sudden, but still too angry to apologize. 

Silently, he swam to the weaving room. 

Just being in it soothed him somewhat. The gigantic loom took up most free space, and the walls were the only bare ones in Deep Light, because they were covered in hanging skeins of thread, made of many materials. A gleaming hank of  acro-silk caught Harry’s eye. Underwater it was diamond-thread, unbelievably beautiful.

Xara, working at her loom, didn’t speak. He floated close and watched as she wove, shuttle darting like a fish through a current. Right now she was working on a face. He didn’t know who’s face—she’d only reached the middle of the eyes. Bright blue eyes.

“This will be a tapestry for the sanctuary,” Xara said. 

Harry had visited the sanctuary once before, when Cassipa had taken Ava and Parime and him on a sort of cultural education day. It was one of the most beautiful places in the mer kingdom. 

“Who is it?” Harry asked. He reached out a finger and touched the blue of the eye. It was made out of a slippery seaweed, and seemed to glisten like a real eye. 

“The Teller Iarandus,” Xara said. “He foretold the end of the world.” 

“Really?” Harry asked. “When will it end?” 

“It already did,” Xara said. “And it will again. And so on.” 

“Oh.” Harry sighed and leaned against her pillowy arm. She stopped weaving and shifted on her hammock seat so he could squeeze in beside her, and then she stroked a hand through his hair. 

“Tell me.” 

Harry took a deep, shuddery breath. He couldn’t meet her eyes. “I did something stupid, so the basilisk sent me away.” 

Xara hummed, her tail swishing. “Sent you away. That seems final. Did it really?” 

Harry frowned. Anger was pulsing through him again. He tried to focus on Xara’s hand against his scalp, scratching lightly. “It said being in the den isn’t good for me right now and I had to take a break, and it sent me away for a week! It’s not fair!” 

Anger broke into betrayal, and, bringing his one good arm up to his face, he started to cry. Underwater tears were sticky and uncomfortable, and it made him cry harder. 

Xara let him be, swinging the hammock gently. “What did you do?” she asked finally.

Harry wiped the viscous tears from his cheeks, sending them floating off into the water. “I used a stupid spell that I couldn’t control and I broke my arm. The basilisk caught me but I…I collapsed part of the den, and it’s really, really angry at me.” 

Xara hummed thoughtfully. “What is it more angry about? The den, or your arm?” 

Harry frowned. “My arm, I guess.” 

Xara trailed her fingers down his neck and up again, soothing. “Speaking as a mother, that tells me something, Sa-nek. Do you know what?” 

“What?” 

“That the basilisk is not really angry,” she said, “it is scared. You scared it very badly. It is worried about you.” 

“No it’s not,” Harry said automatically. 

“Why do you think that? Wouldn’t you be worried?”

“I…” Harry lifted his head from his arm, blinking at the eyes of the Teller Iarandus. “Yes, of course I would.” 

“So worried it might look like anger?” 

“Maybe,” Harry said reluctantly. 

“Even hearing this story,” Xara said, “I am scared and worried for you, and am working hard so as to not express it in anger.” 

“Oh.” Harry sniffed. “But, I was just trying to help! I was—I was doing something for it! Something important!” 

Xara didn’t ask what. “I suspect that doing this thing, to the basilisk, is not as important as your safety.” 

Harry shook his head. “That doesn’t make any sense. It’s why I’m here. It’s why it let me stay.” 

“Has it told you otherwise before?” 

“…yes.”

“Tell me what it told you.” 

Harry thought back. “It’s said…the thing I’m trying to do isn’t worth my death. That I’m its family.” 

“And do you not believe it? Trust it?” 

“No, I—I do!” 

Some old ugliness was rising up in his mind, something he hadn’t thought about for a long time, something that said family was nothing but a small dark space. He shook his head, knocking his forehead with his knuckles. 

“Sa-nek?” 

Xara took his hand. He made himself close his eyes and take deep, even breaths. Those ugly thoughts were potions fumes, rising up to the surface of the lake and burning away in the sun. Those memories were going to sleep. He brushed a hand over their foreheads. Their eyes closed. 

“If you know, then why did you take such a risk?” 

“I knew, but I forgot. I won’t forget anymore.” 

The last of his anger left him. He felt cold and empty, but Xara was warm and full. 

She picked up her shuttle. With him pressed against her side, she stared to weave. 

Harry, a small boy, leans against Xara, a fat merwoman. In the background are hanging skeins of thread.

“I did something stupid, so the basilisk sent me away.” 

small blue sprout

“Ava?” he asked, hovering on the edge of her room. “Sorry.” 

She growled. He swam hesitantly into the room. She was still in her hammock, but faced the door. Her eyes were hard embers of fire. 

He couldn’t meet her eyes. “Know my sorrow,” he said quietly, wiping at his face with his good hand. 

Ava grunted, then rolled herself upright, still glaring. “Will you tell me what happened now?” 

Sighing, Harry swam over to his hammock and tilted himself from side to side with one leg. He summarized the events for her: performing the spell, waking up in agony to the basilisk’s furious gaze and the cavern half-collapsed. Struggling to the kitchens to find Tippy, Tippy summoning her friend who worked in the infirmary to bind his arm. Returning to the basilisk, who promptly banished him to the lake for a week.

“Fllf, Snake, you utter shell-head,” Ava said in amazement when he was done. “Why would you do something like that? My mothers would have literally murdered me. I mean literally.” 

Harry rolled onto his side. “It was stupid. Can we talk about something else?” 

“Yes. I’ve wanting to tell you something this entire time!” 

He sat up. “What?” 

Ava swam down to him, settling across his feet, and started carefully picking at something he hadn’t noticed before—a thin piece of fabric secured to her abdomen.

When she had picked one adhesive edge off, she pulled it from her rubbery skin, revealing a spiraling scar pattern the width of his hand, inked in with vibrant purple color. 

“Wow, Ava!” Harry reached out a hand, then drew it back.

“You can touch, it’s almost healed!” Ava said in excitement. “This is what I wanted to show you right away, only you were in such a horrible mood!”

“I’m sorry,” Harry said guiltily. He delicately touched the edge of Ava’s scar. Mer skin scarred differently from humans—they were permanent carvings in flesh, never raising into bumps. Ava’s was very shallow, but Harry had seen mer with deep, wide scars too. 

“Did it hurt?” Harry asked. 

“Well, yes,” Ava said. “I mean, they numbed the skin, of course, but it hurt when it was healing.”

“What’s the design for?” 

Carefully, Ava stuck the bandage back on. “It’s for choosing a way.” 

“A way?” 

“I’m apprenticing to mer Samba.” 

Harry grinned. “Really? Officially?” Samba had been Ava—and Harry’s—unofficial mentor for a while now, coaching them in diplomacy and mer politics. 

“Yep!” Ava smiled for the first time that day, mouth full of bristling needle-like teeth. 

“It’s beautiful.” 

“Thanks.” Ava flapped her tail, sending Harry’s hammock swinging wildly. “Parime and I were going to go to a concert tonight. Want to come?” 

“Sure,” Harry said. “But what’s a concert?” 

Two hammocks, Ava on the top with her back turned, Harry on the bottom, speaking

Sighing, Harry swam over to his hammock and tilted himself from side to side with one leg.

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A concert, as it turned out, was music. Humming melodies that rippled through the water, along with physical vibrations that Harry could feel along his skin. 

And that was all from outside. The concert was inside a cavern a few miles from Deep Light. Since Harry was temporarily out one arm, Ava and Parime dragged him in a hammock, laughing and trying to out-race each other the entire time, while Harry just tried to hang on. 

“Let’s go!” Ava said, her face orange with excitement. She had braided her hair into a crown for the event and covered the whole thing in a drape of iridescent seaweed netting. Harry had worn his fanciest tail-wrap, a gift from his aunts at Iceglow, and Parime had about a dozen shell necklaces around his neck that clattered together. 

Linking up, they swam inside, Harry between his friends. 

The cave walls were lit with nets that had tiny glowing beads at all interstices, so it looked like they were entering a galaxy. The space was absolutely packed with merfolk. The looks Harry got as they noticed him were some of the strangest ones he’d ever received. They weren’t exactly hostile, but genuinely astonished. He might as well have been an alien.

“Ignore them all,” Ava said to him. “Come on!” She and Parime pulled him as close as they could get to the front of the room, music trembling along their skin.

The musical group—called Underwater Flame, their name actually in English—consisted of three young-looking merfolk doing marvelous things to instruments Harry had never seen. One played an incredibly flat drum, alternating between drumming with palms and a thin, broad shell. One plucked at an instrument that looked like the thinnest sheet of glass stretched between two posts, except it was flexible and emitted high, sharp notes when played. The third had a long board with a dozen clackers attached to it that she struck to make quickly-stopped clapping sounds of different tones. 

All three of them vocalized as well. It wasn’t singing so much as it was creating a soundscape. Rhythmic humming ran together with the music to create a wave of sensation that flowed like a current across the audience. It was so magical that Harry opened his mouth to try to breathe it in.

Ava and Parime wrestled them into spot near the middle-front, tails whipping around to clear a small circle. 

“Let’s dance!” Ava yelled. “Do you know the cockle shell?” 

Harry laughed. “How on earth would I know the cockle shell!” 

Ava took his good hand and one of Parime’s and began a crash course in the dance. The music rippled out like an unending spell. He lost the night to joy. 

They danced until they couldn’t any more, and then they floated with their eyes closed and listened and felt. The musical group played one long, unbroken song the entire time, and to listen to it felt like going on a journey. 

When they finally finished, hours later, Harry, Ava, and Parime were simply resting on the floor to listen, along with about half of the audience. Instead of applause, for it was hard to clap underwater, the merfolk snapped with four fingers. Harry compensated with a measly two. The musical group took several bows, looking electrified and exhausted.

The audience began to leave, but Ava grabbed Harry’s hand. “Let’s stay,” she said. “That’s one of our cousins on the rishvim.” 

They migrated to sit against one of the walls while the group finished talking to a few fans and friends who had swum up to greet them, and then Ava’s cousin came over to them.

“Hello,” she said curiously, eyeing Harry. “Good to see you, cousins. And…?” 

“Cousin,” Ava finished for her. “This is Snake.” 

“Cousin Snake," said the merwoman. “I’m Eri. You’re the one Loch’s been making waves about, right?” 

“Probably,” Harry said, grinning. Half of Eri’s head was shaved; the other fell down to her waist in a long braid. She had no scars as far as Harry could tell, but did have several piercings in her fins and face that glowed in the cave light like little stars. 

“Did you enjoy the show?” she asked.

“Yes!” Harry said. “I’ve never been to a concert; it was amazing! I could—I could feel the music.” 

Eri laughed. “Your first concert? I’m honored.” 

“Will you show us your rishvim?” Parime asked. 

“Sure, sure. And come meet my collaborators, too.” 

Eri’s collaborators were two mermen called Styx and Vimur. Styx had zig-zag scars along his chin, and Vimur wore a shirt—an uncommon thing among merfolk. The shirt had Mermish cursive embroidered on it. Harry couldn’t read Mermish cursive, only print, so he had no idea what it said.

They both greeted Harry in a friendly, if a tiny bit patronizing, manner, and Eri showed them her rishvim. Up close, it was clear that it wasn’t actually glass, but something extremely transparent and both brittle and malleable, shaped across several thin bone rods. Where it puckered along the top ridge, Eri could pluck it to send notes trembling through the water. 

“Want to try?” she offered. 

“Yes!” Carefully, he reached out and plucked the instrument, grinning at the small note that sounded.

“Here, try this sequence.” Eri showed them all a three-note sequence to try. “Not bad,” she laughed, when they’d all had a try. 

“You three could start a group,” joked Vimur, who was carefully packing away his rattles. 

Ava, Parime, and Harry traded elated glances. “We should!” Ava said, tail swishing. “We definitely should!” 

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“How about…Giant Worm,” Harry suggested. 

 “Giant Worm is good,” Ava said. “Or we could do…Saturn Worm.” 

“Space Monster.” 

“Saturn Monster.” 

“Space Worm.” 

Ava poked her head over her hammock at the same time as Harry peeked up. “Space Worm,” they said together.

“We’ll have to make sure Parime agrees,” Harry said. 

“He will,” Ava said confidently.

“Ava, Sa-nek! Come help with dinner!” 

Harry let Ava tow him by the foot to the kitchen. They relayed things out to the dining room—sushi, sauces, spices—and hung up the hammock seats. Loch, who had been out at work, arrived just in time for dinner. Ava babbled about their new band name while Harry stuffed himself with sushi, having missed it quite a bit on land. 

“Sa-nek,” Cassipa said during a lull in the conversation. “Did you see Ava’s scar?” 

Harry swallowed a mouthful of sushi. “It’s beautiful!” 

Cassipa met his eyes. “Would you like one?” 

Everyone was looking at him now, even if his other aunts were pretending not too. “Would I like…a scar?” 

“Yes.” 

Harry frowned. “I haven’t chosen a way like Ava.” 

“That is not all you may receive scars for. They can symbolize many things. Family, friendships, ideals, journeys, hopes, dreams. These,” Cassipa gestured to the lilac scars across her neck, “honor my wives, and these,” she touched the scars across her chest, “speak of an honor I earned for my family.” 

Harry considered this, smearing a bit of spicy sauce onto a sushi roll. He put a hand on his stomach, wondering what it would be like to have a scar there. A beautiful, powerful design. But….

“But I’m not a mer,” he said finally. “Wouldn’t people get very mad?” 

Cassipa’s glance flicked to Loch, who sat forward and spoke. “Some may. But you are our family, above all else. In a way, it would be a mark of…of being a mer, really.”

A new worry tugged at him. “Because…because I’m not enough now? I’m not mer enough to be in your family? I’m too human?” 

“Absolutely not,” Xara said firmly. “Nothing you do or do not do would make you more or less part of our family. You are enough as you are.”

“It is merely an idea,” Cassipa said. “You don’t have to decide now, or a week from now, or in a year or in ten years. If and when you would like one…I would be honored to do it.” 

“You?” Harry asked, mouth falling open.

“Yes. As I did Ava’s.” 

Harry swallowed around a sudden lump in his throat, a mer phrase rising to his lips. “Thank you, Aunt Cassipa. You—you honor me.” 

Ava put a hand on his arm. “Are you okay, Snake?” 

Harry shrugged, feeling tears rise to his eyes and concentrating on not letting them fall. 

“Eat your sushi,” Xara said. “Space Worm, you were saying?”

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Harry sat outside Deep Light in a hammock, watching the constant, gentle flow of debris being swept from the house and out to the Gills. Ava was still sleeping. He had snuck a bit of breakfast from the pantry and come out here to think. 

It might be nice, one day, to have a scar like Ava’s. But not now. Not when he wasn’t sure of…anything, really. Who he was. What he was. What he should be.

Mer. Human. Wizard. Basilisk. Snakeheart. Snake.

Harry. 

He wasn’t anything or anyone, it seemed like. Not enough of any one thing. Not powerful enough. Not smart enough. Not magical enough, not knowledgeable enough. 

He kicked his legs to swing the hammock. 

“Sa-nek?” 

Harry looked over to Xara, who tilted her head at his hammock. He slid over and she sat next to him, resting a parcel in her lap. 

“Thinking?” she asked.

He nodded, then gave the mer nod, which he was trying to remember to start doing instead—a quick up-jerk of his chin.  

“You Mermish is quite beautiful,” Xara said, when they had sat there for a moment. “I was listening at dinner last night.”

“Thank you,” he said quietly. 

“Not many people learn from native speakers. You and Dumbledore. Others learn from books. Their accents are terrible. Yours is charming.”
 
Harry giggled, leaning into her soft shoulder. 

“Are you feeling better?” Xara said. “Almost ready to return?” 

“I guess.” 

“I have something for you to take back with you.” 

His eyes went to the package in her lap, and she passed it to him. He opened the waxy seaweed wrapping to reveal something that glittered boldly in the water.
 
Sitting up, he buried his hands in soft silkiness and pulled the blanket open. It shone so bright it was almost white, twinkling and glittering like it held the stars inside it. 

“Acro-silk,” he said breathlessly, bringing it to his face to rub his cheek along the impossibly soft fabric. It was woven so tightly he couldn’t see a single gap. “Did you make it, Aunt Xara?” 

“Of course. A worthy gift for the one who brought such a joyous thing back into our lands.” 

He hugged her tightly, and she bumped her chin on his head. “I have heard such things are as soft and beautiful above water as below, but I have no way of knowing.” 

“I’ll write and let you know.” 

Ava’s voice rippled through the house. “Snake? Where are you?” 

“Here!” Harry hollered back, folding up his blanket carefully. 

Ava blasted out the back door. “Are you ready to go? Parime said he’d borrow that drum from his uncle today!” 

“I’ve been up for ages,” Harry said, narrowing his eyes. “You’re the one who’s been sleeping.”

“Whatever, let’s go!” 

Chapter Text

“Basilisk?” 

Harry crept through the hall, poking his head into the den, but the basilisk wasn’t there. In the week he’d been gone, the basilisk had cleared up the rubble, sweeping it to one side. All of his things that had been jostled about by the explosion, the basilisk had piled delicately in the corner.

The curse sat there and looked at him, but he ignored it. 

He went over to his little pile and sorted through it. All of his jewelry was fine. A few books had been scraped up, and the delicate eggshells he’d kept for so long had broken. He carefully picked the pieces up and put them in a little bag he’d made out of a fabric scrap. 

He found his wand buried under his clothes. Holding it again felt strange. Like a ghost, he could feel how that spell had burned through his palm. He almost expected the wand to be charred. It was not.

Biting his lip, he walked over to the pile of rubble. He took a deep breath and pointed his wand. “Wingardium leviosa.” 

With great effort, he slowly began to levitate the boulders out of the den and into the hall, barely able to lift them more than a few inches from the ground. He was sweating by the time he had done half. 

He set the last boulder down with a grunt of effort just as the basilisk arrived, slithering in from the other side of the hall. They froze when they saw each other, the basilisk’s ancient gaze unreadable. 

Harry lowered his eyes. “I’m—I’m sorry,” he said. “I was really stupid. I won’t do it again.” 

The basilisk surged forward and curled its tail around him. He squeezed his eyes shut and hugged it tightly.

“What happened?” the basilisk asked. “I don’t understand why you did it.” 

Harry sniffed and shook his head. “I don’t know. I was really upset. I felt…I don’t know. I can’t talk to anyone. I can’t help anyone. I can’t break the curse. I felt…useless. Stupid. ” 

“You are neither of those things.” The basilisk brought its head close and flicked its tongue across his nose. He smiled in spite of himself. 

“I didn’t—I forgot—” Harry took a deep breath. “I forgot I don’t have to earn staying.” 

The basilisk shook his head fiercely, wiggling him back and forth. “Never, Snakeheart, never. You are my family.” 

“And you’re mine.” 

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“Snakeheart, I was thinking over what you said.”

Harry looked up from Distant Friends: Unpicking Portkey Magic, forcing his mind back on track—he’d been quite absorbed. “Yes?” 

“Perhaps…perhaps going to classes is not good for you.” The basilisk rested its head so it was looking him right in the eye. “Your worries over being unable to speak, to help…you are not a ghost. Perhaps you should not act as one.” 

Harry frowned. “But then I won’t be learning anything. I need to learn more to free the eggs.” 

“You have learned things other ways. Speaking to others. Reading.” It narrowed its eyes. “Reading appropriate books.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Harry said. The thought of it made him feel sick, but he remembered almost speaking to Cho, yanking Wood’s bag down. Guilt and embarrassment sloshed around in his stomach. “It’s weird…knowing them, without them knowing me.” 

The basilisk hummed gently in agreement. “And you do have those you know. Who you can speak to.”

“They know me as different things,” Harry said. 

“Yet they still know you.” 

“Yeah…you’re right. I think you’re right.” 

“Just try taking a break. At least for now.” 

Harry sighed and rubbed his chin along the basilisk’s scales. A thought was occurring to him. “I do have friends here that know me. But not all of me. Basilisk?” 

“Yes?” 

“I want to ask you something.” 

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Invisible, Harry walked through the corridor, dodging between and around students. 

He wasn’t going to skulk anymore. But he had to make something right first.

There, leaving the library—Percy and Oliver Wood, Oliver carrying a stack of books while Percy rooted round in his bag. When he’d found what he was looking for—his glasses—he reached to take the books, but Oliver shook his head with a grin.

Something equal parts irritation and guilt flared up in Harry’s stomach, but he stomped it down and followed them until they parted ways—Oliver walked Percy to the Gryffindor common room, and then carried on in the direction of the great hall.

Quickly, Harry made a little elflight and set it loose. Oliver turned to look at it in bemusement, and Harry slipped a pastry wrapped in a napkin into his bag. 

He snapped the elflight out of existence and leaned against a suit of armor as Oliver walked away. He thought the suit of armor might have given a minute nod of approval. Or maybe it was just his imagination. 

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“Tippy? Oh, hi Limmy!” 

Harry entered the kitchen, waving. Tippy gave a distracted nod from where she was kneading dough. Limmy, sat at one of the long house tables, closed the hand-bound book she’d been reading, ears twitching in welcome.

“Hello, Snake.”

“Is you coming for your check-up?” Tippy asked. “Orry is being down soon.” 

“I can waits,” Harry said, sliding in beside Limmy. 

“How do you feels?" Limmy asked, looking at his arm. 

“Better,” Harry said. “Lots better. I thinks I can probably takes the sling off soon. My aunt is taking me to a mer doctor, plus Orry’s potions is helping a lot.” 

“Good.” Limmy’s ears were flat with disapproval. “You is scaring me.”

“I knows. Sorry.” 

She shrugged and flicked his forehead. “I wish we is having a way to send messages to each other.” 

“Me too,” Harry said. “Tippy, do you knows a way?” 

Tippy’s ears flicked in irritation. “I is thinking about it, but now I is busy with pastries.” 

“Sorry.” 

There was a brief burst of magic, and Orry appeared in the kitchen. The elf who had proclaimed her support of Harry turned out to be a friend of Tippy’s who worked in the infirmary. Lucky for Harry.

“Hello, patient,” she said cheerily, coming over and thunking a pouch down on the table that clinked gently. “How is your arm doing?” 

“Good,” Harry said. “I thinks it’s almost better.” 

“Let’s see.” She took the sling off and ran a hand over Harry’s arm. He felt a little ripple of her magic moving over his skin. “Almost better, you’s right. Three more days in the sling, and six on your potions.” She shoved the potions over to him, and he fought down a grimace. They tasted horrible.  

Orry caught the expression anyway. “Oh, is you not wanting them after all?” She raised an eyebrow and reached for the bag.

“No, I is!” Harry said, snatching it. “Thank you, Orry. Thank you a lot.” 

“You is welcome,” Orry said, pleased. “You is a good patient. Better than Limmy here.” 

“Hey!” Limmy glared at Orry. 

“Limmy, last time you is breaking a finger, it is taking three times as long to heal because you is keeping using it.” 

Limmy shrugged. “I is having things to do.” 

Orry rolled her eyes, but Harry kind of got where Limmy was coming from. “Well, I needs to get back to Madam Pomfrey. We is making pepper-up potion.” 

“You isn’t…getting in trouble, is you?” Harry asked suddenly. “For using the potions?” 

Orry smiled at him. “I is making these potions, Snake, in my own time.” 

“Wow!” 

“Indeed. Bye, now.” 

“Bye!” Harry and Limmy chorused. 

“Limmy,” Harry said hesitantly, once Orry had left. “Is you free—I mean, is you working soon?” 

“Not until tomorrow,” Limmy said, already getting up. “Come on.” 

Harry waved at Tippy, who seemed glad to have them out of her kitchen. 

“Where is we going?” Limmy asked. 

“I is telling you in a moment.” Harry turned his pendant around, gripping her hand. With extreme caution, they made their way to the nearest toilet entrance to the tunnels, slipping inside. 

Once in the dark, they lit elflights, and Harry turned visible. “I wants to tell you a big secret,” Harry said, heart thumping. 

Limmy looked at him seriously. “Okay.” 

“I…if I is having a way to make you swear to secrecy, I would,” Harry said. “That’s how big this secret is. Okay?” 

Limmy considered him. Then she raised her finger, the tip glowing pink. “I swears on my magic,” she said. “Not to tells this secret until you is saying so.” 

The pink glow flashed and spread all over her skin, sinking in to leave little glowing darts that fizzled out like embers. 

Harry breathed easier. He had talked this decision over for a long, long time with the basilisk. 

“You is seeing my home,” he said softly, “but not all of it. And you isn’t seeing who I live with. Do you wants to?”

“The secret is who you lives with?” she asked hesitantly.

He nodded.

She thought about it for a long moment. “Yes. Show me.” 

“Alright. Let’s go.” 

They headed through the tunnels, both of them subdued. Harry’s heart was beating as fast as it ever had. They exited the tunnels and made their way into the hall. Inside the den, the light of the basilisk glowed. 

“I’m back,” Harry called. “I brought my friend.” 

“What is you saying just now?” Limmy asked nervously. She took Harry’s hand.

Oh, right. He hadn’t considered that. “I is telling it I is back and I is bringing a friend.” 

“It?” Limmy asked, ears folding slowly back.

In the den, the bulk of the basilisk shifted. The rasp of scales against each other echoed through the hall. “Should I come out?” asked the basilisk. 

Limmy squeaked, taking a step back. “Snake—what is—”

“It asked if it should come out,” Harry said. “Is you still wanting to meet it?” 

Her chin jerked a nod, though her ears were almost horizontal. 

“Yes, come out,” Harry called. “Your eyes are closed, right?”  

“Obviously,” said the basilisk, and slithered out into the hall, eyes tight closed, massive green bulk piling up along the wall and to the ceiling. Its head came to rest a few meters from them, nostrils twitching and tongue flickering out, compensating for lack of sight. 

“Hello,” said the basilisk. “You must be Limmy.” 

Harry turned to Limmy to translate. She had frozen so absolutely that he thought she might have been turned to stone anyways, though her eyes were tightly shut. Her breath was coming rapidly, moving her whole body, ears trembling.

“Limmy?” Harry asked, squeezing her hand. “It’s okay.” 

“B-b-basilisk,” she said, choking out the words. 

“Its eyes are closed. It says hello.” 

She didn’t open her eyes one inch. 

“Limmy,” Harry said, worried now. “It won’t hurt you. It’s my family.” 

Her whole body was so rigid he could have knocked her over with a push. His heart sank into his feet. 

“Limmy, please,” he said quietly.

Slowly, so slowly, one of her eyes opened the barest millimeter, followed by the other, like shutters drawn up in slow motion. And then they both snapped wide and she stared at the basilisk, breathing rapid, ears twitching and flicking.

“Is she…conscious?” asked the basilisk. 

Limmy have a high-pitched squeak at the noise. 

“Yes,” Harry said, before saying to Limmy, “It asked—it is asking if you is conscious.” 

Limmy nodded, little more than a trembling twitch. Abruptly, she dropped Harry’s hand and stepped forward. “Can I touch it?” she asked.

“Can she touch you?” Harry asked the basilisk.

“I suppose.” 

“Go ahead.” 

Carefully, Limmy laid a hand on the scales of the basilisk’s nose, stroking softly, and then jerked away, retreating to Harry’s side.

“You...lives with a basilisk,” she said faintly. “You is living with a basilisk this whole time.”

Harry nodded. “It’s my family.” 

“How?” 

Harry smiled. “Long story. Wants to sit down?” 

Limmy nodded. 

“Is you minding if…the basilisk stays? It is wanting to meets you.” 

Limmy, slowly, shook her head. “I…isn’t minding. I supposes.” 

Harry smiled. 

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Midnight. Or close to it—Harry didn’t have a watch or clock. But it was certainly too dark for anyone in the castle to see the broomshed opening of its own volition.

Holding his breath, Harry stuffed his wand back in his pocket and lit his elflight. Rows of brooms hung in brackets along the walls. They all had names inscribed onto their handles. Cleansweep. Nimbus. Stratosphere. Some of them had damaged or missing bristles. The ones up highest were in better shape, but there was no way he could reach them.

Glancing back over his shoulder a dozen times in a minute, he ran a hand along a Nimbus Glider. The wood was smooth and absolutely full of magic. It practically trembled under his hand; he could feel it longing to fly. It matched his own dreadful longing.

His sling was off, his arm had healed. Who was he to deny two equal longings?
 
Gently, he took the Nimbus from the rack and carried it outside. It was the dark of night, chilly enough that his breath was frosting in the air. The moon, not quite full, lit the quidditch pitch, hoops casting long-fingered shadows.

He rested the Nimbus on the ground and held out his hand over it. “Up,” he whispered fiercely. In half a second the broom thwapped into his hand, the sting of it against his palm infinitely satisfying. 

Remembering what Cho had done those weeks ago, he swung a leg over the broom. All of the sudden he felt the magic in it come alive, buoying him up in the air. Tentatively, he rested his weight on it, and it held him. 

Heart in his throat, he pushed himself off from the ground. 

He rose steadily, smoothly through the night air, nothing between him and the breeze but the Nimbus. He was a bird, a cloud, a dust mote, spiraling through the starlight. He rose higher and higher and higher.

Experimentally, he leaned forward. The broom sped up, shooting him through the air. Unable to stop a delighted laugh from escaping, he leaned harder and harder forward, until he was flat to the handle and speeding through the air, crossing the quidditch pitch in seconds. He shot past the goalposts and threw himself to the side and into a mad turn, swinging so tightly back around that he almost collided with a goalpost, except he swung himself into another turn and ended up shooting towards the ground instead. 

He rocketed face-first towards the ground, wind blowing his hair out and freezing his face, and barely managed to yank up on his broom handle and send himself spinning upwards again just before he collided with the half-frozen grass.

He whooped before he could stop himself, a note of joy ringing through the empty night. 

This, this was what he had always been meant to do. He had been born to fly. 

He clutched the broom with his knees and flipped himself, doing barrel roll after barrel roll until he was too dizzy to see straight, and then he finally figured out how to slow down, bringing himself to a lazy drift high above the pitch. 

From here, the castle looked like a toy set. The pitch was just an assemblage of sticks. The man running towards the pitch was an ant. 

Harry said a word he’d learned from Tippy, who had immediately made him promise to never use it. He tilted his broom downwards, speeding as fast as he could towards the broomshed. He overshot it and overbalanced and crashed into the ground, thankfully from only a few feet, up, rolling several times on the grass, the broom bumping bruises into his knees.

The man was just on the other side of the pitch. Scrambling up, Harry sprinted to the shed and stuck the Nimbus back into its brackets. He felt it give a sorrowful shiver as he left it, trailing a hand along the bristles, and had to tear himself away. He closed the shed door and was ten steps away when the man arrived.

Harry touched his pendant, reassuring himself that the hair was against his skin.

It was that big man who lived in the hut. Harry didn’t know much about him, beyond his name: Hagrid. He had on a bright pink bathrobe and mud boots, and was looking around the pitch cautiously. Harry watched as he strode towards the broom cupboard and wiggled the door. Finding it unlocked, he stepped inside with a grim expression. 

Harry knew he would find nothing out of place. Hand against his pendant, he ran back to the castle, grinning, a joy like magic fizzing in his chest.

 

silhouette of Harry on a broomstick flying high above the quidditch pitch at night

"He had been born to fly."

Chapter Text

“So this book you found,” Harry said. He hefted Hiding Your Stuff. “It’s got all sorts of way to hide your stuff. Turning it invisible. Shrinking it. Putting a magical lock on a box. Making it so that only certain people can see it. Disguising it as something else.”

“That seems useful,” Myrtle said, sounding equal parts bored and intrigued. “You did return that other one, right?” 

“No,” Harry said. “I kept it as a reminder.” 

“A reminder of what?” Myrtle demanded. 

Harry held his ground. “Of what I did when I wasn’t thinking. Of how dangerous magic is.” 

“Oh. I guess that’s fine, then. As long as you don’t use any more of the spells.” 

“I won’t,” Harry said. He picked up Guises and Semblances: Transfiguring Your Treasure to show her. “Now, this one is really interesting because it’s all about disguising something to hide it. It says more about it than the first book. One witch made her whole house look like a cave. You could even go inside and it still just looked like a cave. You could touch the damp walls and…and find toads under stones, and everything.”

“Toads under stones?” 

“The point is it felt real,” Harry said staunchly. “I don’t need to hide a house, which is good, because it sounded like that was really hard.” 

“You just need to hide a mystery object.” Myrtle decided to sink into the floor, only her head and arms poking out. 

“Exactly,” Harry said. “A small mystery object. Which is where this book comes in!” He hefted Distant Friends: Unpicking Portkey Magic triumphantly.

“It’s not even about hiding things,” Myrtle said. 

“That’s what I thought too,” Harry said, leaning forward. “But then I was talking about it with the basilisk, and it said—” 

“Snakeling!” 

“Myrtle!” 

“Little reptile of our hearts!” 

“Deathly denizen of the toilet!” 

“Look what we found!” 

Fred and George tumbled into the toilet in a whirlwind of robes and orange hair. Myrtle squeaked in surprise and sank into the floor til only her eyes showed above the stone. Harry endured the cacophony until the twins settled, leaning eagerly towards Harry and Myrtle. The twin Harry decided was George had suspicious glitter in his hair. The twin Harry decided to call Fred wore a pair of gag glasses with spiraling lenses. 

“Hello,” Harry said, scooting his books away so they wouldn’t get caught in whatever the twins were about to do. 

“‘Lo,” Myrtle said shyly. 

“Myrtle!” the twins chorused.

“Every evening we await you!” Fred cried.

“And every night our hearts break anew!” George clapped a hand to his chest. 

“Please, grace our dinner table with your presence—” 

“—just once, that we might have the pleasure of your company for a meal!” 

“I’m working on it,” Myrtle muttered. “I went to the library the other week. And talked to a portrait in the hall.” 

Fred and George gave her simultaneous high-fives. “That’s progress,” George said. 

 Harry wriggled around so he was on his stomach, propped up on his elbows. “What did you find?” he asked. 

“We were in detention,” began George. 

“Obviously,” said Fred.

“Detention of the most unwelcome sort, with—” 

“—Filch, that old toerag.” 

“But old Filch, he slipped up.” 

“That’s right, Fred.” 

“How’d he slip up, George?”

“Why, Fred, he left his office with us inside.” 

Harry giggled. Fred’s gaze through those glasses looked absolutely mad.

“A beginner’s error, but a fatal one,” said Fred. 

“Our dear Minny would never have made such a mistake.” 

“Have you ever called her that to her face?” Myrtle asked curiously.

George went deathly pale. “Never.” 

Myrtle snorted. “That’s smart. I think I remember some boys who used to do that every so often. They got in such trouble.” 

“Heroes to us all,” said Fred. “So, naturally, we went through his things.” 

“Naturally,” said Harry, amused.

“And we found...” 

“THIS!” 

Fred pulled a folded piece of parchment from his pocket and slapped it triumphantly on the stone floor. He and George looked immensely proud of themselves. 

“Um.” Harry poked it. “A…spare bit of parchment.” 

“Not so!” Fred flourished his wand, and touched it gently to the paper. “Revelio!” 

Inky black lines began to run across the parchment, swiftly forming words. 

Be welcome, mischief-makers
To this most invaluable of resources
If you know the indelible promise: 
What do you solemnly swear? 

“Wicked,” Harry said, touching the ink. It was dry. 

“We think it wants a sort of passcode, obviously,” said Fred.

“And it probably starts with ‘I solemnly swear’,” finished George.

“What have you tried?” Myrtle asked eagerly.

George cleared his throat and placed his wand on the page. “I solemnly swear to use this parchment for mischief!” 

The four original lines reappeared, to be replaced by: 

Mr. Prongs approves of your sentiment. 
Mr. Moony is rolling his eyes. 
Mr. Wormtail likes the cut of your gib.
Mr. Padfoot notes that this isn’t the promise we’re looking for.

Harry laughed. “Can I try?” 

“Go on,” George said.

Harry touched his wand to the parchment. “I solemnly swear…not to let this parchment go to waste.” 

The previous words erased themselves and new ones took their place.

Mr. Moony commends your practicality.
Mr. Wormtail thinks that promise is a bit boring.
Mr. Padfoot should hope you would not. 
Mr. Prongs notes that your promise is upstanding yet incorrect for our purposes. 

“How are you supposed to guess it?” Harry asked. “It could be anything!” 

Fred shrugged. “I guess we’ll just keep trying until we do. And if we never do, it’s still neat.” 

“Hey,” Myrtle said. She had risen to sit fully in their circle. “Hey, er.” Her eyes were closed. Her fingers had gone long and pointy, like they often did when she was remembering her past. “This seems familiar.” 

“Do you know it, Myrtle?” George said eagerly.

Suddenly, there was a whisper that didn’t come from any of them. The whole room went foggy and opaque, and from a corner of the toilet, a boy’s voice whispered: “I solemnly swear I am up to no good.” 

Harry, Fred, and George froze. “What was that?” Harry asked quietly.

Myrtle opened her eyes. The pupils were missing. “That was me,” she said. “Sorry.” 

Slowly, the room went back to normal. “A memory,” Myrtle said. 

“You heard one of these people,” Fred said excitedly. “Do you remember who it was?” 

“No,” Myrtle said, looking dejected. “Sorry.”

“No worries!” George put his wand to the parchment. “I solemnly swear I am up to no good.” 

Now you’ve got it.
~
Messrs. Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs
Purveyors of Aids to Magical Mischief-Makers are proud to present
THE MARAUDER’S MAP

Myrtle hunched over herself, trembling a bit. 

“Are you okay, Myrtle?” Harry asked. 

“Yes,” she said. “I’m fine.” 

“Myrtle, you absolute dream,” said George. “Look at this!” 

For the parchment was unfolding on its own, expanding to several times its size, and ink was rushing like a river along the page, describing a map: a map of the castle.

“There’s the quidditch pitch!” Harry said.

“And there’s the great hall, the entrance hall—” 

“Look, there are different sections for the different floors!” 

“Ooh, where’s my toilet?” 

“Wait, what’s happening now?” 

Little dots were appearing on the page. They moved slowly around, in a million little indiscernible patterns. As they watched, noses practically touching the parchment, minute words appeared under the dots. 

“Katie Bell,” George read. “Oh, Merlin’s balls. No way.” 

“Pomona Sprout!” Fred shouted, jabbing his finger down. “Marcus Flint!” 

“There’s Snape! I can’t believe this!” George laughed in excitement. “Where are we?” 

Elation had frozen in Harry’s stomach, metamorphosing into a kind of all-consuming static. His fingers twitched, a desperate instinct to seize the map, but panic had frozen him entirely. He met Myrtle’s eyes. She had gone so pale she was transparent.

“Wait,” she began.

“Fred Weasley!” Fred shouted. “And here’s you, George, and Myrtle Warren, and…” 

“Harry Potter,” said George.

They looked at him. Their mouths hung open in identical images of perfect shock. Fred was still wearing those stupid glasses. 

The impetus that had abandoned Harry the moment before grasped him now. He leapt to his feet, drawing his wand. Myrtle shot towards the doorway, as solid as he’d ever seen her, dark tendrils anchoring it shut. 

“You’re…” said Fred, mouth agape. 

“Dead!” shouted George. “You’re dead!” 

Harry frowned. “You…know me?” 

Fred tore off his glasses to better stare at him. “Know you!” 

“Trelawney’s nephew, my broomstick!” shouted George, but there was an edge to it—a grinning edge.

“You can’t tell anyone about me!” Harry shouted. “Or—or—” He didn’t know what. His wand was in his hand, but he couldn’t hurt the twins. 

“OR ELSE,” Myrtle said, her voice at once echoing through the toilet and yet absolutely soundless. The temperature of the room dropped so fast their breath started to cloud. 

Fred and George went bone-white. “R-right,” Fred said. 

“Look,” George said, standing up. “Myrtle, Titchy T, relax. We won’t turn you in.” 

“You—you won’t?” Harry asked. 

George shook his head, shedding glitter everywhere. Beside him, Fred nodded in agreement. 

“W-why?” Harry hugged himself, shivering in the chill. Coming to float behind him, Myrtle made a concentrated effort to raise the temperature. 

“Well,” Fred said. “You must be here for a good reason, right?” 

Harry nodded. “I, um. I live here.” 

“How do you live in Hogwarts?” George asked. “Have you lived here since you disappeared?” 

“How do you know about that?” Harry demanded. “How do you know my name?”

The twins exchanged looks. “Well, er, you’re a bit famous, I suppose. Or, you were. It was big news when you…died. Disappeared.” 

“Ran away,” Harry said quietly. He supposed it would make sense to become famous for disappearing. It might have worried people. Not the Dursleys, certainly, but others. 

George frowned. “Why’d you run away?” 

Harry shrugged, struggling with what to say. Abstract memories rose up in his mind, yawning from sleeping so long—darkness, and pain, and loneliness. How could he put those things to words? “I…the people I…” he shook his head in frustration. “It was a bad place.” 

“Oh,” said Fred, face doing something odd. “So you came here?” 

Harry nodded. 

“Are you, like…alright?” George asked. He looked around the toilet. “You don’t live in this toilet, do you?” 

“Nothing wrong with living in a toilet,” Myrtle said grumpily, mostly back to normal except for her hair, which was still doing something tentacle-like. 

“‘Course not,” Fred said breezily.

“I don’t, anyway,” Harry said. “I have a home and a family. I won’t tell you about them, though.” 

“That’s fine,” George said. “So long as you have one.” 

They all looked at each other for a long, long moment. Fred picked up the map. “How do you suppose I close this thing?” 

Myrtle’s eyes went pure white. “Mischief managed,” said that remembered voice from the corner.

“That’s very spooky,” said George approvingly, and closed the map. 

“Snake—Harry—”

“Snake,” Harry said quietly. “Please.” 

“Right, Snake. Do you need anything? Food? Clothes?” 

Harry shook his head. “I have everything I need.”

The twins stared at him. At his forehead in particular. Nervously, he flattened his hair, which had long since covered his scar. Their eyes flicked back to his face. 

“You…” Harry’s breathing was a little ragged. “You can’t tell. Fred, George. Please. Please don’t tell.” 

“Hey,” Fred said. “Snakeling. We won’t tell.” 

George drew his wand and took a knee, Fred smiling and copying him. In synchronization, they laid their wands over their hearts in dramatic pantomime. 

“We solemnly swear we will never tell,” Fred declared.

“If we do so, we will have betrayed the principles of mischief itself,” said George.

“And our forefathers in mischief may strike us down,” finished Fred. 

The winked at him. “There. Trust us, Little T. We can keep a secret.” 

“Thanks,” Harry said. “Really.”

And they left, map in their pocket, calling to Myrtle that they would see her at dinner.

Harry turned to Myrtle, whose expression was twisted. “Do you think they’ll tell?” Harry asked her nervously.

“What? Oh, no. I just don’t know if I want to go to dinner. Also, they just scare me a bit, sometimes. With how easily they keep secrets.” 

“I guess,” Harry said. He sat down shakily and put his face in his knees. 

“Hey,” Myrtle said. “Your secret is safe. I’m sure of it.” 

He looked at her. “You don’t know about me, do you?” 

“Never heard of you,” Myrtle said. “And to be honest? I prefer the name Snake.” 

small blue sprout

Winter holiday dawned before Harry knew it—he had been totally absorbed in studying the books from the library, talking ideas over with the basilisk in endless conversations, converting one whole wall of Salazar’s chamber to a chalkboard on which he took notes. Now that he wasn’t going to many classes—save Divination, which he loved too much to give up—it was easy to lose track of the school schedule.

He only found out it was the holiday when he went to visit Myrtle, to discover that the twins had left him a gift before departing. 

“What is it?” Myrtle asked, hanging upside-down over his shoulder.

Harry picked open the red and green wrapping paper, determined to preserve it. There was a little note inside.

Merry Christmas, Snakeling. Keep warm over holiday. P.S. Wherever you live, it’s not on the map.

Bundled up in wrapping paper was a hand-knitted hat and a chocolate bar wrapped in foil.

“Can you eat?” Harry asked Myrtle. 

“Not really,” Myrtle said. “Go ahead and have it. Besides, they got me a gift too, can you believe it?” She produced a palm-sized book of riddles. 

Harry stuffed the hat on his head—it was bright purple, had a few holes, and was now the warmest thing he owned after his acro-silk blanket. But even better than the hat and the chocolate, which was mouth-watering, was the reassurance of knowing that even if someone got their hands on the Marauder’s Map, they wouldn’t find his home or the basilisk. 

small blue sprout

Holiday meant he could move more freely through the halls, and he did so, roaming happily during the day, chatting with his portrait friends and accompanying Limmy in the greenhouses. 

One morning he was coming into the main hall, having been down at the lake to talk to Ava and Parime, making plans for Iceglow, when Severus and Minerva stormed past him at a military pace, faces severe and wands drawn. 

Without a moment's hesitation, Harry followed them. 

They went down to the dungeons, not quite to the Slytherin common room but to the potions wing, opening a door to an empty classroom.

Dumbledore was waiting for them, sitting atop a desk in pale pink robes, a small box resting on his knees. He kept his wand on the box, tapping it in a rhythm. 

They left the door open, and so Harry spied from the doorway. 

“Albus,” said Severus, holding his wand to his side. “You found it?” 

“I found one,” said Albus gravely. “I am afraid…my worst suspicions are true.” 

Minerva said a curse the likes of which Harry had never heard pass her lips, and turned away from the others for a moment, putting one hand to her throat. “Abhorrent,” she spat. “Criminal. Beyond kenning.” 

“And here in this box,” Dumbledore said gravely. “Severus, are you still sure of the method?” 

“I have found nothing better,” said Severus gravely, face deathly pale. “It must be fiendfyre.” 

Dumbledore sighed, his face more exhausted than Harry had ever seen it. Something uneasy curled in Harry’s stomach. Anything that could make Dumbledore look like that had to be wretched indeed. “Minerva, what do you think?” he asked. 

“Between the three of us, we can control it,” said Minerva, turning back around, face creased with determination. “It will be…difficult. To say the least. I have only harnessed fiendfyre once before, and my partner and I had a team standing by in case it consumed us.” 

Dumbledore slid off the desk, vanishing it quickly, and then vanished every other piece of furniture in the room, leaving only hard stone behind. Then he levitated the box to the other end of the room. 

“Severus?” he said, voice strained.

Severus swished his wand and the box vanished, leaving behind only a small locket on a chain, hovering in the air. 

Dumbledore made a small noise of strain, face creasing in effort. His eyes didn’t leave the locket. “Minerva, the fire,” he said. 

Minerva raised her wand and took a breath.

“Wait,” Severus snapped. “The door.” He waved his wand, and Harry barely had time to throw himself from the doorway before it snapped shut. 

Minerva shouted something, but it was muffled. And then blinding light erupted from the cracks around the door, and terrible roars, shrieks and snarls came spilling out into the corridor. Harry scrambled back on his hands and knees, mindless with fear. 

Above the cacophony was another noise, one that went straight to the marrow of his bone—a human scream, a cry, a sob. An agonized: “NO!”  

Harry staggered to his feet and ran, just as the fire blasted out into the corridor. The door had given way, dissolved into nothing but embers. Roaring monsters of flame leapt and flew down the corridor towards him, catching at the hem of his robe— 

And then there was a great shout from inside the room, and the fire vanished, leaving deep scorch marks along the floor. Harry patted his robe out, checking his pendant and pressing himself against the wall.  

No sound came from inside the room. 

Slowly and silently, Harry slid back along the wall to peer in. Just to make sure the professors weren’t all dead, he told himself.

They were not dead. They were sitting on the floor, all three of them singed and soot-blackened. Dumbledore’s beard was still slightly on fire. Minerva’s bun was smoking. Harry was surprised Severus’ hair hadn’t gone right up, greasy as it was. 

In the corner lay a mangled, twisted lump of metal. 

“How many?” Minerva croaked finally. 

Dumbledore sighed. “Five or six.” 

“Why 'or'?” Severus snapped.

“I always believed…I always believed one to have been in the boy. Assuming he is…dead…there are five more.” 

Minerva let out a choked, angry scoff of a sob. 

“You will take us to retrieve the next one,” Severus said. 

“I will. I would have taken you this time, had I suspect it would be anything more dangerous than befriending an old elf. I learned my lesson in the cave with the fake, Severus—had you not been there, the consequences would have been grave.” 

Severus gave a long, low sigh. “Indeed.” 

“I offered to take the elf into our kitchen staff,” Dumbledore said happily. “That old house was no good for him.”

“Did he agree?” Minerva asked curiously. 

“Alas, no. He would not leave his ancestral home. But I told him he would always be welcome, should he ever change his mind.” 

“Unlikely,” Severus said. “Those lineage elves…they don’t leave easy.” 

“So we have ensured,” Dumbledore agreed, face grim. 

Harry left. 

Chapter Text

“Ahh,” Harry sighed, waking to a forest covered in frost and fog. It settled from roots to treetops, scattering the sun. It meant he’d woken late, but he didn’t mind. He wasn’t walking any further today.

He had a royal escort. 

He felt like a small and secretive creature, hidden there under the fog with his little dead fire, wrapped in his acro-silk blanket, which alone had kept him comfortably warm through the December night in the forest. Without moving much—it was still very cold—he pulled his comb from his bag and started running it through his hair, which was now just below his shoulders. From the embers of the fire, with careful fingers he pulled a small potato, breaking it open and juggling it from hand to hand.

The fog was dense enough that he couldn’t see three feet around him. He decided it was better to wait it out and let his escort come to him. They had been meeting in this cleaning for several months now, ever since silk trade between the acromantulae and merfolk had begun in earnest: she transported the silk this far, and he took it the rest of the way.

On the very edge of his radius of vision, a hairy leg poked through. Then another. Then a bundle of red eyes and two fierce pincers shuttled forward, stopping on the other side of his embers. 

“Hello, Vogir,” Harry said happily. “I’m glad you found me.” 

“Salutations, Snakeheart,” said the acromantula princess. Her legs bent a hundred different ways as she settled herself on the ground. “Identifying your encampment in this obscurity gave me pains." 

“Yeah,” Harry said, gazing around at the whiteness. “It’s dense. But pretty.” 

“Indeed,” said Vogir, pleased. “You should witness how it settles on the web. Sublime artistry.” 

“How is Aragog?” Harry asked, finishing his potato.

“He is well.” Vogir’s legs rustled in approval. “He and Mosag approbate your presence among us for the solstice."

“I'm excited too.” Harry bundled up his blanket and tucked it into his bag, along with his comb. From a flask he had a long sip of water, and then he stood up and brushed himself off and kicked dirt over the dregs of his fire. He pulled his purple hat as far as it would go down his ears. “Alright, ready to go.” 

He scrambled onto Vogir’s back, tying himself to her with a bit of silk Mosag had woven into a sort of harness for just this purpose. He kept as low to her back as he could, for it was hard for her to judge her own height with his added. 

Riding on spider back was like nothing else. Vogir scuttled along the ground and across the trees indiscriminately, as if she saw them all as part of the same interconnected dimension. It was no effort to transcend levels—she moved through the forest as an integral cog in its workings, absolutely in tune with the sway of the wind, the balance of trees. Harry lay on her back, staring blindly into the fog, and felt her body move, wondering if he could ever learn to be so fluid on land. This journey was a seven day walk, but only two days by spiderback. 

“Are you anticipating the festivity?” Vogir asked him. 

“Yes! What do you do usually?” 

“Oh, we have art and poetry provings, and make oblations to the stars, and depict the eminent histories that we only recount at this time of year. What about you?” 

Harry ducked under a branch that was heading for his face. “I’ve never celebrated it! I just got back from Iceglow with my mer family, though.” 

“Assuredly?” Vogir’s pincers clicked in excitement. “I’m envious! What is their praxis?” 

“Mostly food,” Harry said, and explained all about the Death Quest, which he hadn’t participated in this year, and gift giving and, this year, the unveiling of Xara’s tapestry at the sanctuary. 

“I wish I could experience such conventions,” clicked Vogir. “Alas, an impossible eventuality. There is diver's breath for the acromantulae. And, more cogently, no permittance through two-legger lands to the lake."

“Do you give gifts on solstice?” Harry asked. 

“Not customarily. We stay up very late conversing and recounting histories and legends, though. And this year, I’m entering the poetry contest.” 

“Oh, wow!” Harry was a great fan of acromantula poetry, which did not rhyme but adhered to a strict and convoluted meter. He barely understood it the rules, but Vogir was a prodigy. 

They chatted until a natural silence fell, and after they stopped to eat, Vogir tried to teach him a little bit of the acromantulae language. Harry didn’t have pincers, so he had to do his best by clicking his tongue. It was nearly impossible, but by the time the sun set, he could reliably say “hello” in a manner that, in Vogir’s words, did not make her want to kill and eat him. He thought she was mostly joking. 

The next morning, the fog was just as thick. In the few hours it took to reach the acromantula camp, it didn’t thin any. But the sun became stronger, creating a glittering cloud of golden shimmer around them. Harry was stretching out his hand to trail his fingers in it when voices resolved ahead of them.

“Blimey, Aragog, it’s been so good to see yeh.” 

“You as well, my friend. You are dear to my heart.” 

Harry flattened himself across Vogir’s back, and the sudden movement made the spider stop moving. “Snakeheart?” 

“Who is that?” Harry hissed. 

“The steward of the castle grounds, come for a sojourn.” 

“He can’t see me,” Harry implored, “please, don’t let him.” 

“Be not perturbed.” And Vogir carried them straight up a tree and out into thin air—except it wasn’t thin air, it was web covered by fog. To Harry it felt like they were balancing on nothing. Vogir crouched there and Harry remained on her back, listening. They were directly above Aragog and the steward.

“You know you have a home here,” Aragog said. 

“Yes, I know it,” said the steward. “Yeh only tell me every time I come to see yeh. But you know I can’t, my friend.”

“I neither know nor understand. Those traitorous two-leggers…what have they ever allotted you, besides betrayal and persecution?” 

The steward sighed. “My world's bigger than this forest, Aragog. I mean no disrespect, yeh know that. But I owe it to Dumbledore to stay. “

Aragog hissed. 

“Don’ do that. He’s a good man. Done a lot for me. Least I can do for him is mind the grounds. And yeh know that if there’s ever real trouble, if I’ve nowhere else to turn, I’ll come to you.” 

“I know,” Aragog said, sounding slightly rebuked, something Harry had never heard in his tone before. “I know it, Hagrid, my friend. But had I the faculty I would raze the castle for what they did to you.” 

“No,” Hagrid said seriously. “Them who did that to me aren’t in the castle any more. Raze the ministry, though, and I wouldn’t stop you.” He paused. “All jokes, o' course, should anyone ever ask. Not that they will. People out there don’ know the first thing about the forest. They’re gonna have a nasty surprise one day.” 

Aragog’s pincers clicked. “A day I desiderate. Are you steadfast you cannot tarry one day more, my friend?” 

Hagrid sighed. “Been here too long already. Need to get back. But it’s been good to see yeh, Aragog, it really has.” 

“Until next time.” 

Vogir crept lower as Hagrid departed, until Harry could make him out—practically a bear of a man, in a great overcoat with a rucksack and, for some reason, a pink umbrella tucked into his belt. He strode away from the camp like he had done it a thousand times, which, Harry supposed, he had. 

Vogir crept down from the web and over to Aragog, brushing legs with her father. Harry slid down from her back.

“Greetings, honored emissary,” Aragog said. “I would have acquainted you with my compatriot the steward. Why did you enshroud yourself?” 

“I’m…well, I’m a secret,” Harry said nervously. “No-one at the castle knows about me or the basilisk. Practically no-one, anyway.” 

Aragog looked at him in surprise. “I was incognizant of your seclusion. I am allayed, then, that I did not allude to your ubiety with Hagrid.” 

“That’s the steward?” Harry asked. “Who Riddle blamed for letting you loose in the castle?” Harry regularly stole vegetables from Hagrid’s garden. He had a vaguely positive opinion of him, having seen him rescue a bird with a broken wing once. 

Aragog glowered at the mentioned of Riddle’s name. “Yes. Dumbledore permitted he remain at the school as steward, a scantly recompense, but Hagrid has always been…excessively obliged for it. When no-one offers you kindness, even a pittance seems a fortune.” 

“Perchance one day you two shall converge,” Aragog said. “The emissary of the basilisk, and the emissary of the castle.” 

“Oh, is he?” Harry asked. “Not just the steward?” 

“Indeed. Dumbledore dispatches him on business to treat with the acromantuale when imperative. In this instance, a professor requested acquiescence to make ingress into our territory to cull a rare seed.”

“Did you agree?” 

“I did. She shall enter, but only with Vogir as escort. Beneficial experience for my daughter besides."

At that moment, Mosag arrived. “I’ve conducted the steward beyond the far nests.” He rubbed legs with both his mate and child and gave a twitching bow to Harry. “Salutations, honored emissary.” 

“Hello, Mosag.” Harry gave a little bow back. He couldn’t quite do it the spider way—he didn’t have enough legs—but he tried to make do with his elbows and knees. 

“It is felicitous that you will join us for solstice,” Mosag said. “I trust your passage here went well.”

“Very well,” said Vogir. “Snakeheart, demonstrate what you have learned.” 

Clearning his throat, Harry clicked out his best approximation of a greeting in the acromantula language. 

Aragog peered at him. “Commendable. Most two-legger tongues mangle our language completely, which is why we deign to utilize English with most of them. You, however, have only mostly distorted it.” 

Harry laughed. “Thanks, I guess. Maybe I’ll be good enough by solstice to perform in the poetry contest.”

“Please refrain,” said Mosag seriously. 

small blue sprout

“Ahhh!” Harry yelled, facing down the acromantula rearing up over him. He thrust a stick into the air, a desperate last act. “I, Galric the Great, will not be exterminated by you, fiend!” 

The acromantula snapped its pincers. “And yet, pathetic worm, this is your cessation!” It came down on him, its legs striking the air on either side of him. He fell to the ground, did a few dramatic rolls, the stick falling from his hand, and ended looking toward the crowd, eyes open and tongue sticking out. 

There was a moment of respectful silence, and then the assembled acromantulae stomped their feet in appreciation. Harry rose and took a bow with Agrar, the acromantula who had been playing Monag of the Many Feats. 

“Superb spectacle!” called Vogir. Harry went to sit by her, beaming with pride. “You’re the most convincing Galric we’ve ever had,” she told him. 

“Because I’m the only one who’s actually a two-legger?” he joked.

“No!” she said, waving a leg. “No, a few years ago Surag did it, and she was amply impressive. No, you just have a certain deportant. You’re a natural thespian.” 

“What’s a thespian?” 

“An actor!” 

Harry grinned and bit into a roasted bug. He liked the sound of that. 

In front of him, Monag continued on to his next feat. Another acromantula had come up to portray a great talking tree with six riddles to be solved. He payed careful attention to the riddles, for Myrtle. 

This was how acromantula history was taught, and he quite liked it. It was easy to remember history when you were reenacting it yourself. He had tried sitting in on History of Magic with Fred and George, and had dozed right off. He’d woken when he’d been bumped into, and had had to flee, subsequently deeming it too dangerous to attend such a boring class. The acromantula way was so much better. 

Though it was the shortest day of the year, the acromantulae stretched it on and on, staying up the entire night telling histories and performing poetry. At one point Harry was urged to stand up in front of everyone and say, as proudly as he could, “Happy Solstice” in the acromantulae language, to well-meaning laughter and applause. 

He spent a happy week post-solstice at the encampment, spending the days hammering out trade stipulations with Aragog and Vogir, and attending history re-enactments and learning poetry and mangling acromantulae vocabulary by night. Vogir even taught him a traditional battle song, most of which was impossible for him to pronounce, but was fun anyway. And some nights, Mosag would join him in his little cocoon tent and stay with him until he fell asleep, telling him stories of his youth. 

When it was time to return, Vogir accompanied him back, several rolls of silk strapped behind Harry—the most recent shipment to the mer kingdom. 

She dropped him off as close as she dared come to the edge of the forest. She clicked her pincers “goodbye.” Harry clicked his tongue in an approximation of the same. 

“We make fun,” Vogir said, nudging him with a leg, “but most two-leggers don’t bother to study our language. So truly, I do not know whether you might learn it or not, because no-one ever has.” 

“Even Hagrid?” 

“The steward knows a few phrases,” said Vogir. “But languages are arduous for him to apprehend. But they come instinctively to you. So perhaps you could do it.” 

“I promise I’ll try,” said Harry. 

“And even that is…a boon,” said Vogir. “Farewell, Snakeheart. Happy Solstice.”

“Happy Solstice, Vogir. Thank you.” 

She have a clicking laugh. “You are welcome.” 

silhouette of a small boy facing a spider taller than him

“Farewell, Snakeheart.” 

Chapter Text

“Do you celebrate any winter holidays?” Harry asked the basilisk, tidying things up in the den to burn off nervous energy. 

“No,” rumbled the basilisk, watching him with amusement. “Time means little to those in the deeps.” 

“You’re not in the deeps now,” Harry pointed out, re-positioning his alien merboy figure for the third time. 

“And yet I still do not experience time’s passage as you do. Is this your way of saying you would like a holiday present?” 

“No!” Harry exclaimed, but the basilisk was already hissing with laughter. 

“Snake?” came an echo from the hall. 

“Coming!” 

Harry stuffed the rest of his clothes behind a boulder and dashed out of the den. Limmy was waiting on the other side of the room, looking around hesitantly.

“Is…is the basilisk here?” she asked.

“Yes. It says hello.”

“Tell it I says hello.” 

“I’m glad you is finding me alright,” Harry said. “I is worrying you is getting lost in the tunnels.” 

Limmy shook her head, ears flapping. “I is coming here enough. Is…is you ready?” 

Harry nodded. “Is it okay if the basilisk comes? It’s helping me the first time.”

“If it's keeping its eyes closed.” 

Harry turned back towards the den to shout: “We’re going into Sal’s room! You can come but make sure to close your eyes!” 

“I will not forget,” hissed the basilisk. 

Limmy went a little pale at the sound of its voice, but held her ground. They made their way to Salazar’s room, Harry lit a few lamps he’d recently repaired, and they both sent elflights to hover in the air. This plus the glow rock Harry had dragged in earlier meant the space was fairly well-lit. When the basilisk slithered over to rest just outside the door, its glow brightened it even more. 

He’d tidied up this room in preparation as well. The floor and desk were clear but for his wand and books. Their notes were still chalked across one wall. 

“Okay,” Harry said. “The basilisk worked everything out with me. First, you have to make it.” 

Limmy sat on the floor, and he settled opposite, evaluating her. She hadn’t said much since coming in, just looked around the room in grim silence. She twisted her fingers together over and over in her lap. 

“Limmy?” Harry asked softly. “Do you still wants to do this?” 

Limmy raised her eyes to meet his, luminous, like moons come to earth. “I is a little scared,” she said, “by how much I wants to.” She cupped her hands in the air and three objects fell into them: a long stick, a small grey feather, and a strand of almost transparent white hair. 

She held the wood out to him. He took it, rolling it in his hand and feeling the magic of it.

“A branch from a wiggentree,” Limmy said. “I is growing it myself for Professor Sprout. Since I is growing it, I don’t think she is minding if I uses a branch. Wiggentree protects against dark magic. Here is your pieces.” She handed him two more thumb-sized bits of wiggentree wood that he set aside.

She picked up the feather next. It was tiny and burned and dead-looking, but even from a foot away he could feel the life coming off it. 

“I is asking Fawkes for this,” she said. “And he is giving me it.” 

“I’ve met Fawkes!” Harry exclaimed. “He’s Dumbledore’s bird!” 

“He is a phoenix,” Limmy said. “Constantly dying and reborn. Right now he is a small chick, but he is giving me this chest feather.” 

“Wicked. What’s the hair?” 

Limmy held the stand of hair up. “This is my grandmother’s hair.” 

“Your grandmother is alive?”

Limmy nodded. “She isn’t knowing much anymore, but she is knowing me. I is brushing her hair and saving a single strand. I wants…I wants this to represent where my heart is. With elfkind, always, as elfkind is always with me.” Limmy placed the materials on the ground. “I is ready.” 

The basilisk listening closely, Harry described how he had made his wand. Using elf magic, not wizard magic, to bind the wood, core, and periphery together and mold the shape. He offered tips he’d learned from classes—breathing slowly and evenly, relaxing your body, clearing your mind. 

When Limmy looked as serene as he’d ever seen her, ears tilted up and face and shoulders relaxed, she picked up the wiggentree branch and began to roll it between her fingers. 

The elf magic, naturally, came easily to her. Like clay, she stretched and molded the wood. Unlike Harry’s wand, which still looked obviously like a branch, she made her wood completely smooth, twisted into one seamless spiral. She pressed her great-grandmother’s hair down along the curves, sweeping along it with her thumb so that it was encompassed within the wand completely, no longer visible to the eye. 

Though her forehead was beading with sweat and her shoulders shaking, she kept her breathing steady. Picking up Fawkes’ feather, she pressed it with a thumb into the very base of the wand. She pressed and pressed, working the magic of the wood, until the wood ate the feather entirely.  

She ran her hands along the length of the wand one more time, pressed her thumbprint into the bottom, and let the wand fall from her hands, rolling onto the floor.

Immediately she slumped forward, gasping like she had just raced across the castle. Harry scrabbled to get her a cup of water, which she drank in one gulp. She dumped the second one over her head. 

Dripping water from her ears, she stared at the wand on the floor. She reached out a hand for it, hesitantly, almost afraid, and then all at once she seized it and pointed it at one of the books on the desk. 

“Wingardium leviosa,” she said, a spell Harry had practiced often in her presence. Wobbling and jerking, the top book lifted off the desk, hovering a meter in the air. Then she dropped the book with a rush, panting with exertion.

She held her wand in her hands and looked at Harry, her eyes a maelstrom. Matching smiles grew across their faces.

 

Limmy and Harry sit cross-legged beside each other. Limmy holds up a red feather.

"He is a phoenix," Limmy said. "Constantly dying and reborn."

small blue sprout

Three hours later, Harry woke Limmy from her nap on Sal’s bed. She’d tried to stay awake to help with the next part, but the wandmaking had exhausted her. Harry had brought her his acro-silk blanket, and she’d fallen asleep in moments. 

This had left the basilisk free to supervise Harry’s spellwork, which was without a doubt the hardest thing he’d ever done. It had been hard enough to think of it.

It had been Harry’s gut instinct at first, but in the end the basilisk had put the pieces together. It remembered a sizable amount of spellwork from its time with Salazar and could keenly sense the workings of magic. So Harry mostly followed its intuitive instructions, supplemented occasionally by his own. 

Limmy had fallen asleep clutching her wand to her chest. She woke and stared at it like she’d caught a falling star, running her long fingers over the spiral’s deep ridges. 

“Alright, I think we is having it,” Harry said. “But now we needs your wand.” 

Limmy handed it to him, watching curiously. 

Harry showed her what he had assembled: the extra bits of wiggentree wood, holes bored in the ends, strung on a necklace thongs. He placed the wand below them and raised his own bone-white wand. 

“Does you know what you wants your code word to be?” he asked her. 

“Yes,” she said. “The Mermish word you is teaching me. Aelisf.” 

He grinned. “Good one. In that case, mine'll be aeflin." Then he asked in the snake language: “Basilisk?”

“I have you,” hissed the basilisk. “Begin the first joining.” 

Harry touched the tip of his wand to one pendant. Reaching for his magic, he said loudly: “Concopulo conmeo. Remeo aeflin.” 

He drew his wand away from the first pendant and moved it to the other. A thin white line of light now stretched between them, along the path his wand had moved. “Remeo aelisf.” 

He lifted his wand. A shimmering line of light glimmered between the two pendants. He touched the middle of the line and drew a new stream out, leading it down to touch Limmy’s wand, doing a little half-twist in the middle. 

The basilisk whispered the next incantation to him. “Tramitto apsconditum.” 

“And now the movement,” the basilisk hissed. “Half a star—left—right.” 

Harry zig-zagged his wand, rapidly tracing out the six points of the half-star, tracing left and right, and then ending with a circle, the trail of light blazing form his wand and finally meeting itself at the end. 

There was a great flash of lilac light, and when Harry could see again, Limmy’s wand was gone. 

“Okay,” Harry said. “Let’s try.” Silently, he wished to have not messed up and disappeared Limmy’s wand. 

They put on their pendants. Harry put a hand to his—it felt alive. He could feel the phoenix feather inside. 

Limmy touched her pendant. “Aelisf!”

At the same time that her wand appeared in her hand, the wiggentree wood disappeared from Harry’s pendant. 

“Ha!” she cried, leaping up and onto the bed in glee. “Yes! Yes, Snake!”

“Try to send it back,” Harry said eagerly. 

Limmy touched the tip of the wand to her pendant, and said again: “Aelisf.” The wand disappeared. The wood charm appeared back on Harry’s pendant. 

“Is you being able to call it?” Limmy asked.

“I think so. Let me try. Aeflin!” The charm disappeared from Limmy’s necklace, the wand appeared in Harry’s hand. He sent it back quickly. “I won’t ever do it though, don’t worry.” 

“I isn’t worried,” Limmy said. “And you can do it, in an emergency. Is the basilisk’s eyes shut?” 

Harry checked quickly. “Yes.” 

Limmy turned to look. “Tell it I says thank you.” 

Harry translated. “It says you is welcome. That it wishes you luck. That you haves its support.” 

Limmy walked over and embraced the basilisk, wrapping her skinny arms around its nose. It stuck out its tongue and tickled one of her ears until she giggled. 

She stepped back and called her wand, holding it out in front of her to examine. Harry held his out to compare. They couldn’t be more different, but the magic in them felt…familiar. Kindred. “Snake,” Limmy said, “I is never telling anyone about this until I haves to. Not a single elf is knowing until I isn’t helping it.” 

“Right,” Harry said. 

Limmy gave a bright, defiant laugh that pulled a grin to Harry’s face. “Things is going to change, Snake. They is going to change for the better.” 

Limmy holding her wand up in the air, pink magic swirling around it.

Limmy with her wand

Chapter Text

He didn’t care that he had almost gotten caught. He went back to the quidditch pitch. Again and again, wheeling through air so frigid it hurt to breathe, vision blurry with heavy snowfall, he flew. He tried every broomstick he could reach from the broom shed. He was careful to keep his exultant shouts inside, but sometimes he just couldn’t help it. 

He knew Hagrid suspected someone was getting into the shed. An extra lock had been placed on the handle. But Harry knew alohomora, and nothing on this earth was going to keep him from flying.

One night he pulled up from a brilliant dive, coasting a few inches from the lawn, to find twin orange heads gaping at him. 

He tumbled from his broom in shock, hitting the ground and rolling, and lay there staring up at the sky until Fred and George’s heads appeared in his vision. 

“I forgot students got back today,” he sighed. 

“Merlin’s saggy pants, Titchy T,” said the twin he decided was Fred. 

“Where in the seven hells did you learn to fly like that?” demanded the twin he decided was George.

The answer, of course, was 'thestrals,' but Harry couldn’t say that. “Some friends taught me,” he mumbled instead. “Can you give me any pointers?” 

And so, during some of his frigid nights in the air, he was joined by two Weasleys. They were quite excellent flyers themselves. Besides being on the school quidditch team, they told him they’d been playing neighborhood matches for years. They taught him all about the sport once they learned he had an inkling of an interest.

“How do you know when I’m here?” Harry asked one night, as they packed up the brooms and Fred and George showed him how to make it look like they’d never been there—little things he’d never realized, like the angle of the brooms and the placement of the lock.

“The map, of course,” Fred said.

“Oh. Right.” Harry had an odd feeling. “You don’t spy on me all the time, do you?” 

“Nah,” said George. “We mostly use it to avoid professors. And to be honest, it’s bloody hard to find someone on that map. There’s loads of people in the castle.” 

“We’ve only seen you in Myrtle’s toilet sometimes, and—” 

“—heading towards the forest, too.” They looked at him. “Be careful in there, yeah? We’ve heard there’s spiders.” 

Harry grinned a little. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” 

small blue sprout

“Wingardium leviosa.”

The rock floated an inch or two in the air, spinning rapidly. Limmy gave a grunt of frustration. “Why is it spinning?” 

Harry, reclining on Sal's decomposing mattress, watched critically. “Try relaxing your arm.” 

“I is relaxing my arm! If I relaxes my arm any more, it is falling off!” 

Harry grinned. “You don't sounds very relaxed.” 

Limmy ended the spell with a huff of frustration, rolling her wand between her palms. “I don't understands what I is doing wrong.” 

Harry shrugged. “Sorry I can’t helps more.” 

“No, you’s fine,” Limmy said, flapping a hand at him. “I is just used to elf magic, I supposes.” 

Harry pulled a library book closer to him. He’d checked it out a few nights before, thinking of Limmy. Little Warlock’s First Spells.

“Sure you don’t want to try one of these?” he asked, waving the baby blue book at her.

She glared at him. “I isn’t a child, Snake. I don't needs a child’s book.” 

Harry flipped to a random page. “Just try! Maybe it's helping your magic figure out how to works.” He showed her a page: Bullesco - making bubbles for baby’s bath! Your little wizard will catch on to this one quick as a wink!

“I isn’t a baby!” 

“I’s trying it too,” Harry said, ignoring her. He drew a little circle with his wand. “Bullesco!” 

A stream of tiny lavender bubbles erupted from his wand, popping almost immediately. He giggled as they splashed on his face. 

“Fine,” Limmy sighed. “Bullesco.” From her wand came a single bubble as big as her head, shimmering orange. “Oh!” She popped it with the tip of her wand, and sparkles showered down. “Okay, that is pretty.” 

“Why don’t we tries….” Harry riffled through. “Um…vapos. Make a gentle steam when your baby has a cough!”  

By time they had gone through all the baby spells, when Limmy tried wingardium leviosa once more, her pebble shot straight up to the ceiling and lodged there.

“Different than spinning!” Harry said. She stuck her tongue out at him.

 

Harry and Limmy lounge on a bed. Limmy produces bubbles from her wand.

"Bullesco!"

small blue sprout

There was a knock on the door.

Myrtle froze. Harry caught their ball before it could slam into a stall. No-one ever knocked on Myrtle’s door, not even the twins. Who would? 

Myrtle gestured for Harry to turn his pendant. He did so, and got into a stall for good measure, standing on a toilet tank to see over the top.

The knock came again. “Er…Myrtle?” 

“Yes?” Myrtle called. “Who is it?” 

Cracking the door open, a round boy with vibrant purple hair and pointed ears poked his head in. 

“Tonks!” Myrtle exclaimed. “Why are you knocking?” 

“Felt weird to walk into girl’s toilet as a boy,” Tonks said ruefully, ruffling his hair. “Even an out-of-order one. Er…can I come in?” 

“Sure!” Myrtle did a little backwards flip. “Boys come in here all the time, anyway.” 

Tonks waggled his eyebrows. “Is that so? Myrtle, you player.” 

Myrtle went transparent. “Not like that!”

“Just teasing.” Tonks grinned, shutting the door and looking around. “Say, Snake isn’t here, is he?” 

“Um….”

Harry made sure his pendant was turned around and slipped out of the stall. “‘Lo, Tonks!” 

“Snake!” Tonks grinned, looking a bit to the right of his shoulder. “Good to see you. Or, er, you know. I’ve been checking bathrooms for a while hoping to find you, and then I remembered Myrtle came and got you when—er—” 

“When you were crying in my toilet,” Myrtle said helpfully.

Tonks blushed. “Right. Since I don’t see—or, well I never really see you, do I—since I don’t talk to you that often, I’ve been hoping to find you so I could say, well, thank you. And goodbye.” 

“Goodbye?” Harry asked, frowning. “Why? Are you leaving?” 

He smiled. “Well, yes. I’m a seventh year. This spring, I graduate Hogwarts and go into auror training.” 

Harry digested this uncomfortable truth, mood plunging into melancholy. “What’s…what’s an auror?” 

“Magical law enforcement,” Tonks said. He hopped up to sit on the sink, and Myrtle settled beside him. “Hunting down dark wizards, keeping people safe. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.” 

“Bet you’ll be good at it,” Myrtle said. “With your abilities.” 

“They were my ticket in,” Tonks said. “I’m a bit clumsy, sometimes, but no-one can beat me in disguise. I went to the preliminary trials disguised as the instructor, started the test half an hour early, and even got someone to bring me tea before the actual instructor got there and almost called the real aurors on me. Offered me a trainee spot a soon as he realized what was going on.” 

“Wicked,” Myrtle said. Harry agreed, but a good chunk of his heart was still dismayed at the thought of Tonks leaving. 

“Aurors work for the ministry,” Tonks went on. “And I don’t really approve of this ministry, you know, or Fudge…but I’m hoping to change things from the inside.” 

“Fudge?” Harry asked. “The candy?” 

“No, the minister. Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge. I don’t approve of him.” 

“Why not?” 

“He lets blood supremacists get away with far too much. All buddy-buddy with the likes of Lucius Malfoy. Don’t get me started on his track record with creatures.”

“Creatures?” 

“Um, you know, centaurs, merpeople?” 

“They’re not creatures,” Harry said angrily. “They’re not…bugs, or something. They’re people!” 

Tonks smiled. “You know, it makes sense you’d be that sort. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you. Charlie does too. That’s what I wanted to come talk to you about, actually.” 

Harry made himself calm down. The name “Lucius Malfoy” had been like a slap to the face. “Charlie?” 

“Yeah. You, er, encouraged me to talk to him about…stuff.” He waved generally at his body. “Thought he might understand. And it turns out he did. You were right. So, thank you.”  

“You’re welcome,” Harry said, touched. “I, um. I don’t…want you to leave.” 

“I’ll miss you,” Tonks said. “But hey! You can go into mirrors all over the world, right? That’s what you told me. So you can visit.” 

“Um…” Harry thought fast. “Not since I, er, came out of the mirror. I can’t travel between them very easily anymore. You’ll just have to come visit me.”

Tonks rolled his eyes and laughed. “Alright, fine.”  

small blue sprout

“It’s almost time for me to go visit Araeo.” 

“Ah yes, your…what was it?” 

“Heartkin.” Harry surveyed his clothes, wondering which to pack. It was late spring and getting warmer, but he didn’t want to leave his purple hat behind. The basilisk coiled behind him.

“Heartkin. What a strange concept. But quite lovely. Can you feel his heartbeat now?” 

“No, not now. Only when we hold hands.” 

“How fascinating. I am glad you have such a companion. Often I have wished for…someone to share my life with. After my siblings were gone. Not that I do not share it with you, Snakeheart, or any of my human friends before. Salazar was a good friend. But I am so old, and you humans live such quick lives.” It nudged its nose into the curse crouching over the eggs. “Once I thought…my children, they would be as my—my heartkin. As my siblings once were. We would…be together. In our hearts.” 

Harry put his forehead against the basilisk’s side, one hand on the curse. “You will be,” he said softly. “If it takes me my whole quick life.” 

The basilisk flicked its tongue over his face. “I cherish our time together, Snakeheart. But I am pleased that you have your Araeo. How long will you be gone?”

“He only told me to pack for a long journey. It might be a long time.” 

The curled the end of its tail around him gently. “I will await you. Be safe.”  

Chapter Text

The sun. Harry loved all weather equally...if winter a bit less...but the feel of the spring sun on his face was one he would never tire of. It was less than a day’s walk to the edge of centaur territory, and these first hours had been peaceful.

Was it strange to have a best friend you’d only met once? If it was, Harry wasn’t much bothered. His heart was so full at the thought of seeing Araeo again the his face hurt from smiling so much. 

There was also the twinge of unease at heading for centaur territory. Every instinct he’d honed in the past several years in the forest told him to give the territory a wide berth. He could taste the edges of their land, and his instincts were yelling for him to turn back. 

He squashed them down. Araeo. He would see Araeo today. 

Firenze met him just at the edge of centaur land. Firenze was his second-favorite centaur, after Araeo. Pale-skinned, light brown fur going grey with age, he had a face deep with laugh lines. 

“Greetings, Snakeheart,” Firenze said, bending to hug him. Harry patted his back awkwardly—Firenze was much too tall for this. “What a joyous occasion you are joining us for.” 

“I’m not even sure what we’re doing,” Harry said happily, watching how the little glass beads in Firenze’s hair caught the light and sparkled as they began walking. 

Firenze grinned at him. “It is the eve of my nephew’s Searching, a trial all those who will eventually lead a band go through at a certain age.” 

“What is he searching for?” 

Firenze shrugged. “It is always different. My sister searched for truth. I do not know what Araeo will venture in search of.”

“And what am I here for?” Harry asked eagerly. “I mean, I want to be here! Obviously. I just don’t really know why.” 

“You are Araeo’s heartkin,” Firenze said simply. “And so you will accompany him on his Searching. His bulwark, as we call it. Do you know this word?” 

Harry did know this word, from the acromantulae. “A wall for defense?” he asked curiously.

“Not as such for our purposes. Rather, a source of strength and protection.” 

“Oh.” Harry liked that very much. “Is, um. Well.” 

“Ask.” Firenze raised a branch so Harry could walk under without ducking.

“Is Bane mad about that?” 

Firenze rubbed a hand down his long chin. “Mad? No. Heartkin are far too rare and precious a thing to waste anger on. No, he is fearful, Snakeheart.” 

“Fearful? Of me?” 

Firenze smiled at him. “No, child. Of the story he sees in the stars about you and his son.” 

“What story does he see?” Harry asked. 

Firenze shrugged. “What he sees, he keeps to himself. And yet I know Araeo sees something…not different, exactly, but diverging.” 

“Do you see anything?” 

Firenze stared up into the early spring sky, watching the clouds drift. “I see many things. But they concern different events, different people, for the most part. Some things too far to affect us, or so I believe, and some things much too close to see clearly.” 

“Wow,” Harry said. “I just see weird things like eyes.” 

Firenze stopped walking abruptly, staring at him in astonishment. “You See?” 

“Er.” Harry twisted his hands around the strap of his bag. “No?” 

Firenze’s brow furrowed. “You need not hide this from me. I will not betray you. You see eyes?” 

“Yes,” Harry said nervously. “Red ones. And other things too.” 

“Red eyes,” Firenze said thoughtfully, resuming walking. “And what more?” 

“A cavern,” Harry said, struggling to remember. “I don’t think about it very much. Um. Araeo.”

“Naturally.” 

“And…blood.” 

Firenze said nothing for a long time, so long that Harry almost forgot about the conversation. The sun was waning. They were almost to the village. “What you See is not always what you believe it may be,” he said, startling Harry out of a relaxed reverie. “Perhaps you will find something of your own on this Searching. We are here.” 

Harry had been to the centaur village only once before, and by force. It was not a happy memory. 

Now, in the evening light, he could see it better. The centaurs lived in immense honeycomb-like bowers formed from living trees, vast and impossible constructions that they had been passing for some time now. They converged, it seemed, here in the village center. Last Harry had been here, there had been curious stargazing instruments set up. Those were gone now, and the clearing was decorated for a festival.

The bowers’ walls had all been woven with fresh wildflowers and silky ribbons. From the treetops above the clearing, nets of delicate blown glass stars swayed on silken strings, a meter above the heads of the gathered centaurs. The large central cooking fire was burning a bright green, throwing off emerald sparks. Food and drink were laid out on high woven tables.

There were perhaps fifteen centaurs currently assembled, talking and laughing, eating and drinking, some playing dart games on a tree. Their hair glittered with beads and ribbons, manes and tails braided. As they saw Harry, to his astonishment, they put down drinks and food and darts, placed hands on their hearts and chins, and bowed. 

Overwhelmed with an unnameable emotion, Harry bowed back. 

“I will take you to Araeo,” Firenze said, “and then I must go prepare.” 

He led Harry through the clearing and under a woven bower archway, the top of which was hung with miniature glass stars. It was dim inside the bower, the round walls reminding Harry of Deep Light, almost, but the evening sun came down in rays through opened hatches in the roof. 

They were really more like roads, Harry thought, because Firenze led him for quite a distance through one bower-road, finally coming to a halt at a portion of the bower that had been filled in—only it wasn’t filled in, it was a woven door, and Firenze pulled it open and shouted inside: “Snakeheart is here! Do not be late!” And he left, leaving Harry in the doorway, peering into the dim room.

“Snakeheart!” came a joyful cry, and Araeo cantered into the room. 

Harry shouted with joy and leapt, and Araeo caught him and swung him around, then set him down, laughing. 

Their hands found each others’. There was a shifting of the earth. Harry stopped breathing for a moment as their heartbeats aligned.

“Can you see?” Araeo asked worriedly. “Is it too dim for you? Humans cannot see in the dark, right?” 

“Right,” Harry said, grinning. “It’s a little dark.” 

“Here.” Pulling him by the hand, Araeo went to a little box on a table and unlatched it, throwing the top open. From the box burst a dozen little sparks of light, flying in loops around the room, brightening it considerably. 

“Lightning beetles,” Araeo explained, watching Harry’s amazement. “Can you see better now?” 

“Yes!” Harry took in the room. It looked to be both a kitchen and dining room, with a fireplace, shelves, and cabinets all woven right out of the bower walls. There was a tall wooden table, and more bower-shelves holding books on the far side. “This is your house?” Harry asked. 

“Yep,” Araeo said. “Come on, my bedroom is this way.” There was a long bower-hall leading off the main room, ending in another woven door. The lightning beetles followed them as they walked, illuminating things in stages.

“Where do your parents live?” Harry asked. “I didn’t see their room.”

“You passed it on the way to the family room,” Araeo said. “It’s closer to the village center.” 

“You live so far from them?” Harry asked. He wondered if this was normal or strange. He only had the Dursleys and Ava to compare to. 

Araeo shrugged and opened the door to his room. “I don’t think it’s far.” 

The lightning beetles zoomed in, illuminating a low-ceilinged but wide room with tall bookshelves, a table, a skylight open to the evening air, and a centaur bed—a nest of blankets on the floor with a raised and pillowed portion for Araeo's torso and head.

Araeo took Harry’s bag and set it on the table, and then dragged him over to a vanity woven from the wall, which held a jar of hairbrushes and a large case with a lot of elaborate subsections containing a veritable rainbow of beads. Araeo peered into the mirror set into the wall, using his free hand to drag a section of his hair over his shoulder. 

“Will you help?” he asked. “I’m not going to be done in time; we still have to do you. Here, I got you a stool.” He pulled over a tall wooden stool, which would put Harry at a vaguely centaur-height. Harry clambered up with difficulty.

“What do I do?” 

“Do you know how to braid?” 

“Er, no.” 

“Can you thread beads?” 

“I never have, sorry. But I can try!”

“Okay, watch. I’m letting go.” 

“Oh, alright.” Harry braced himself, wincing as Araeo’s palm slipped from his and his heart stuttered back into its own rhythm.

“Sorry,” Araeo said regretfully. “Watch.” Picking up a thin comb, he separated a few strands of his hair, wet the tips of his fingers in a little perfumed jar to stiffen the ends, and delicately slid a diamond-white bead about halfway up the strand, dabbing a bit more of the liquid under it to keep it from sliding. “Okay?” he asked. “Can you do my tail? Then mother can braid it.” 

“Sure.” Araeo gave him a little bowl of white beads which he balanced in his lap and his own comb, and he began, tongue poking out of his mouth in concentration. “Did you say we have to do me?” 

“Yes,” Araeo said. “Do you mind?” 

“No, I think it’s really pretty. I liked Firenze’s rainbow ones. He told me I’m your bulwark.” 

Araeo nodded, deep in concentration threading beads into his hair. “Yes. I’m glad you got here safely. I knew you would.” 

“Do you know what you’ll be searching for?” Harry asked, biting his lip as he accidentally left a strand of hair out of a bead and had to restart. 

“Yes. My mother searched for truth, my grandmother for wisdom, my great-aunt for foresight. I will search for judgement.”

“Judgment?” 

“Intuition regarding circumstances. Prudence of choice.” 

“Knowing the best thing to do,” Harry said.

“Precisely. I have all the foresight I could possibly ask for. Too much, I sometimes think. What I must learn is what actions are best to take based on what I See.” 

“That makes sense. How long will the journey be?” 

Araeo shrugged. “Regarding my Searching, my sight is surprisingly limited. The lack of perception is frightening, in a way. I have never been without sight before. But I suspect it will be a long journey, a month or longer.” 

Harry nudged Araeo with his elbow, so as not to get perfume on him. “Don’t be scared. That’s what a bulwark is for, isn’t it?” 

Araeo grinned, his cloudy eyes fond. “Yes, it is.” 

They worked and chatted for a while longer, until Araeo’s hair and tail were so beaded they glittered, and then Araeo had him move up to the vanity and began working on his hair. 

The first thing he did was pull the top portion of his hair sharply back, baring his forehead and revealing his scar. Instinctively, Harry put a hand over it. 

Araeo let his hair back down. “Sorry. I’ll do something different.” 

“No, er.” Harry pushed back his hair and traced fingers over his scar. The many-forked lightning bolt was a scramble of silvery lines cutting across his forehead. “It used to be red,” he said drawing his hand away. “Bright red. And it used to hurt a lot. Then it stopped. I don’t think about it very much.” 

Araeo pressed a thumb over the scar and traced along the lines. Harry watched him do it in the mirror. Araeo’s dark skin was patchy all over with little white blots like galaxies. In a funny way, Harry’s scar mirrored Araeo’s skin. Something of the sky on each of them. 

“You can pull my hair back,” Harry decided. “It’s kind of pretty?” This was hesitant. He had never thought of his scar as much besides ugly before—others had told him as much often enough—and he had certainly never thought of any part of himself as pretty. 

“It is pretty,” Araeo said, running strong fingers through his hair to draw it back. “What color beads do you want?” 

“Rainbow?” Harry asked hopefully.

Araeo grinned. “Perfect.” 

Araeo braided the top portion of his hair all the way down, leaving the layers underneath loose. He was halfway through putting the beads in when Nayla arrived, stomping her feet to announce herself before pushing the door open. 

Harry turned to greet her, but Araeo made an irritated noise and directed his shoulders back towards the mirror. “Hello, mother,” he said. “Are we late?” 

“Not yet,” said Nayla. Meeting Harry’s eyes in the mirror, she bowed to him. He mimicked it, popping back up before Araeo could tug on his hair. “Hello, Snakeheart. It is good to see you again.” 

“You too,” he said, realizing it was true. He did like Nayla, even if the one time they had met had ended in disaster. She was his third favorite centaur, out of the four he knew. 

Nayla walked over and evaluated Araeo’s tail. “Nicely done,” she said. “Your work, Snakeheart?”

“Yes,” Harry said. 

Her eyes caught on his scar in the mirror. “You look splendid.” 

“Er, thanks.” 

Nayla began braiding Araeo’s tail in deft movements. “I wish to apologize, Snakeheart,” she said briskly. “The last time you were here, both my mate and I overreacted and injured you. At the time we did not know how you would intersect with Araeo’s life, and our lives. My mate fears the future, but it is I who must guide us through it. Please accept my apology.” 

“I know it,” Harry said softly. 

She quirked an eyebrow at him. “Interesting phrasing.” 

Harry realized what he’d said. “It’s Mermish. Know my—I mean, sorry. I accept.” 

“What do the mer say?” she asked. “For apologies.”

“They say ‘know my sorrow’."

She thought this over. “How elegant.” She finished braiding Araeo’s tail, and stroked his back. “My son, how proud I am of you. I feel as if my own Searching was only yesterday.” 

Araeo smiled. “Thank you, mother.” 

Nayla took a bundle of fabric out of a bag she wore around her back. “Here, Snakeheart. For the ceremony.” 

“Thank you. I have something for you, too, actually.” He pulled away from Araeo and went to his bag, pulling out a small cloth bundle. He unwrapped it and offered it to Nayla. “This is from the basilisk. It sends you greetings informally as my family, and formally as a leader to another.” 

Nayla looked in wonderment at the scale he held in his hands. She took it gently, cradling it in the fabric scrap. “I shall prepare a gift in return,” she said. “As leader of my band, I greatly treasure this gesture of goodwill, Snakeheart. And as Araeo’s mother, I am honored by your family’s trust.” 

She straightened up, tucking the scale away into her bag. “Fifteen minutes, children.” And she left. 

“My mother is envious,” Araeo confided after a moment, rolling the last few beads around in his hand. “She Searched alone.” 

“I’m glad you don’t have to,” Harry said. He climbed back up on the stool for Araeo to finish.

Araeo slipped the last beads into his hair and retrieved a handheld mirror, angled so Harry could see the back. He caught his breath, raising a hand to touch it before Araeo slapped it gently back down. His hair was a rainbow riot of shiny color, a black prism throwing light shadows. He was the stained glass doors of the library. 

Araeo had daubed something soft and shining onto the lines of his scar, making it glimmer. His whole head smelled like wildflowers.  

It was, undeniably, pretty. 

“Thank you Areo,” Harry said. “It’s wonderful.” 

Araeo grinned. “Let’s see what my mother brought you. I’m surprised she found something—we don’t really wear wizard clothes here. It’ll either be something very strange or very old.” 

Laughing, they unfolded the bundle. It was both very strange and very old—a dress, Harry could tell immediately, green, with long, wide sleeves that fell almost to the hem of the thing, small yellow flowers embroidered around the middle. 

“You don’t have to wear it,” Araeo said, covering his face with a hand. “These are girls’ things, right?” 

“I’ll wear it,” Harry said gamely, taking off his robe. “Your mother got it for me.” 

Where Nayla had gotten a girl’s dress that looked like something out of a story book, Harry had no idea, but at least it fit him well enough. Araeo nearly had a fit when he had to pull it over his head, but between the two of them they accomplished it without touching his hair. 

Harry looked at himself in the mirror and spluttered in amusement. He looked pretty much like a girl, he thought, with his hair grown past his shoulders, and wondered if it should bother him. At the very least, he did look pretty.

“Are you sure?” Araeo’s face was pinched with worry and embarrassment. “Really, Snakeheart, you can wear your wizard robe if you want.” 

“I don’t mind,” said Harry, surprised to find that he was serious. “I like it.” 

“Well…good!” Araeo grinned. “Then let’s go!”

Harry in a long green gown, raising a hand to display long trailing sleeves

"At the very least, he did look pretty."

small blue sprout

Close-up of Harry smiling

Bonus - cropped Harry from an unused illustration, but I liked his smile :)

Chapter Text

The sun had gone fully down by the time they made it back to the village center, and a glorious full moon had risen. The clearing was absolutely alight with color: those blown glass stars were illuminated from inside; the green fire was now flaring rosy pink, and hundreds of lightning beetles buzzed through the air. Though the sun was down it was still delightfully warm, so warm that Harry had decided to attend the party barefoot, since his old mended and re-mended and re-re-mended boots weren’t exactly fancy. 

The centaurs in the clearing now numbered around thirty. The full population of the forest, Araeo explained. 

“That’s not a lot,” Harry said, surprised. “Why so few?” 

Araeo shrugged. “We live long and don’t have children quickly.” 

“You’re the only one,” Harry remembered.

“Yes. It is uncommon for centaur foals to have age-mates. There will be another foal in perhaps a year, maybe two.” 

“You don’t know?” Harry teased.

Araeo stuck out his tongue at him.

“Son,” Bane said, clopping up to them. He was equally as decorated as Araeo, if not more—he wore a sash across his chest with hundreds of tiny glass discs sewn on that sang when he walked. “Snakeheart.” 

“Hello father,” Araeo said placidly. Harry admired his utter fearlessness of Bane.

“Hi, Bane.” 

Bane gave him an odd look. “Do humans no longer differentiate between their gender binary?” 

Harry scowled. Bane always made him defensive. “Nayla found this for me. And besides, according to the merfolk I’m legally a basilisk, and snakes don’t have gender.”

“And it’s pretty,” said Araeo, squeezing his hand.

“And it’s pretty,” Harry added stubbornly.  

Bane just stared at him for a long, long moment. It was perhaps the least aggressive stare Bane had ever given him. Then he reached out, startling Harry, and hooked a finger under the cord of one of his necklaces, pulling the Stargazer Band pendant out so it rested atop the dress. Then he nodded to them both and left.

“Your father is always getting in my…my personal space,” Harry muttered.

Araeo giggled. “I think centaurs have different ideas of personal space.”

“Nephew, Snakeheart!” Firenze was standing by the fire, roasting something on a stick over it. They trotted over to him, and Harry saw that he had been serious about getting ready—he had put his hair up in an elaborate crown, studded with purple beads, and there was light green powder dusted below his eyelids and bottom lip, and across his cheekbones. 

“What’s on your face?” Harry asked. 

Firenze touched the tips of his fingers to his cheek, smiled mischievously, and brushed them across Harry’s nose. Harry laughed and swatted the dust off.

“It’s chroma powder,” he said. “A sort of makeup. You look lovely, Snakeheart. As do you, nephew. I am very proud of you.” 

“Thank you, uncle,” Araeo said, bowing his head. “Without your tutelage, I would not be at this point so soon.” 

Firenze grinned at him and took his stick from the fire. On it were little toasted cubes of bread. “Share?” he asked, pulling them from the stick as if they hadn’t just been inside a fire. In contrast, Harry juggled his from hand to hand, while the centaurs watched in amusement. When it had finally cooled, he bit into it to find it was a soft, crusty bread filled with an herbed cheese. 

“This is so good,” he said. 

“I believe Eidala made them,” Firenze said, pointing her out—she was playing a dart game on the edge of the clearing. “You should tell her you enjoy them.”

“Okay, come on Araeo.” 

Eidala was a brown-skinned centaur whose hair was shaved on both sides, the middle braided tightly all the way down to her back. She threw darts into palm-sized targets spaced along a tree trunk with frightening accuracy. Two other centaurs watched and cheered, but when Harry and Araeo walked up they quieted and bowed respectfully. 

“Hello Eidala, Tamys, Uncle Kireris,” said Araeo. “Please know my heartkin, Snakeheart.” 

“Welcome!” Eidala said, clapping him on the shoulder. “How long has it been since a human has come to the village, besides the steward? I honestly don’t recall!” 

“I liked your cheesy bread squares,” Harry said. 

“My ranban? Why, thank you! Here, play a round before you leave us.” Eidala pressed four darts into Harry’s free hand, and four into Araeo’s. 

“How do I play?” Harry asked.

Araeo dropped his hand—thu-thump went their hearts—and squared up to the targets. In swift succession, he threw the darts at the targets spaced up and down the tree trunk. One hit dead center, two hit the very edge, and the last bounced off onto the ground. 

Harry gave it his best shot, but only one of them struck the edge of a target. 

“Good try,” Eidala said, taking the darts back. “Araeo, how are you feeling?” 

Araeo took Harry’s hand again. Thu-bump. “As ready as I can be,” he said, shrugging. “My parents and uncles have brought me as far as they can.” He inclined his head to Kireris. “It is up to me, now, to take myself further.” 

Kireris nodded approvingly. He had a square jaw, dark skin, and a familiar stern look.

“You’re Bane’s brother?” Harry guessed. 

“Indeed,” Kireris said. Then he winked. “Fear not, Snakeheart. My brother got most of the no-nonsense genes in my family.” 

Harry grinned at him. “Araeo, do you have other family here?” 

Araeo shook his head. “When my mother and her mate came here to lead the Stargazer Band, each of them took one sibling with them, as is traditional.” 

“I didn’t know your mother moved here,” Harry said. “Where did she grow up?” 

“In a larger colony to the South,” said Kireris. “Within our people there is much migration, for our settlements tend to be small, making it important to ensure the blood stays mixed.” 

“Oh, look, Naesene is painting!” said Tamys suddenly, pointing at a passing centaur. Harry saw in shock that his face had been half transformed into a leaf-skinned spirit, vivid paint converting face to foliage. 

“Snakeheart, want to get your face painted?” Araeo asked excitedly.

“Yes,” Harry said. 

Over near the bower wall, a centaur was dipping a slim brush into a palette, applying the finishing touches to a centaur woman’s face—her chin had been turned into a bundle of roses spilling from the corners of her lips. 

“Naesene’s a famous artist,” Araeo whispered to Harry as they stood a respectful distance away to watch. “She sells paintings all over the world.” 

“Wow,” Harry said, watching as Naesene dipped her brush into another color of paint—only a few shades lighter than the first—and lined the edge of a petal. 

“I’m not as famous as all that,” Naesene said, patting the centaur woman’s cheek as she finished. “There you are, Hesa, my heart.” 

Hesa grinned. “Give me a kiss,” she teased, leaning in with her newly-painted lips.

“I shall never kiss you again if you ruin that,“ Naesene said, smiling. “Go on and let me attend to these young foals.” 

Araeo did a little skip up to Naesene, looking eagerly at her paints. “You choose,” he said. 

Naesene looked at him thoughtfully. “You still insist on asking, hm? Though you never seem surprised at what I paint.” 

“Can’t help it,” Araeo said. “Snakeheart, what do you want?” 

“I want a surprise too,” Harry decided. “Can I watch you do Araeo, Naesene? Um, am I being polite enough?” 

“What do you mean?” Araeo asked. 

“No more talking from you,” Naesene said, tapping Araeo’s nose with a freshly cleaned brush. “Until I’m done. And you,” she pointed the brush at Harry. “May watch. Any other human would call me Artist Stargazer, less formally Artist Naesene. But you are no regular human, and you will properly call me Naesene, as Araeo would.” 

“What if there are two Stargazer artists?” Harry said, standing on his tiptoes to see into the palette. There were dozens upon dozens of colors in a rainbow array, each only a shade lighter or darker than its neighbor. 

“There are. If we were both in the same room, I would then be Painter Stargazer, and Alorus would be Sculptor Stargazer.” Dipping her brush into a yellow-ish white, she swiftly began to outline the light spots on Araeo’s face. Harry watched in rapt fascination as she deftly transformed one half of his face into the night sky. His eye became a planet around which moons orbited, his pigment-free spots became constellations, his dark skin darkened further to become the night sky. When she finished she patted his paint-free cheek, and when Araeo turned to Harry it was like looking at the cosmos incarnate. 

“Well?” Araeo asked him. “Did she do the night sky?” 

“Yes,” Harry laughed. 

“Knew it,” Araeo said smugly. 

Naesene rolled her eyes and had him run and get a stool for Harry to sit on. Delicately, she plucked his glasses from his face and then, frowning, inspected them.

“These are in bad shape,” she said. ”How long have you had them?” 

“Um,” Harry said. “I don’t know? Forever?” 

She frowned at him as if this was his fault. “Do you see well with them?” 

Harry shrugged. “Better than without them.” 

She swirled her brush in the paint and brought it to Harry’s face. “We’ll talk to Asios before you leave tomorrow. You can’t be a bulwark if you can’t see.”

“Who’s Asios?” 

“No more talking until I’m done. Asios is a lens-maker.”  

He watched the indistinct world as she painted, trying not to smile at the tickle of her brush. Araeo, blurry, watched from over her shoulder, his face a swirl of color. When she was done she leaned back triumphantly. “Lovely.” 

“He looks wonderful,” Araeo said. “Here, Snakeheart.” He held up a mirror, and Naesene set his glasses gently back on his face. 

Harry caught his breath. Stretched across the lower half of his face—edge of jaw to opposite cheek, bisected by his mouth—was a bone white tree. It was so detailed he could make out knots in the branches. It mirrored the silver shine of his scar, two white branched things reaching for each other. 

A tremble went down his spine. Fear, maybe. Or maybe something else.

“Snakeheart?” Araeo asked. 

“It’s beautiful,” Harry said truthfully. “Thank you, Naesene.” 

She patted his shoulder, something distant in her eyes. Then she shook her head, bringing herself back. “I’ll be at your door with Asios early tomorrow, Araeo.” 

“Thank you,” Araeo said. 

 

Image of Harry getting his face painted. A white tree branches across his face to meet his forked scar.

It mirrored the silver shine of his scar, two white branched things reaching for each other. 

 

On the other side of the clearing, a drumbeat picked up, followed quickly by the sound of strings. 

“Dancing’s going to start!” Araeo said, seizing Harry’s hand (ba-dum). “Thank you, Naesene!” 

On the other side of the fire a centaur was playing a set of three standing drums, hands moving so fast they were a blur. Three others were playing stringed, bowed instruments that reminded Harry of Salazar’s vielle, only thinner and longer and with a lot more strings. The sounds the musicians were drawing from them were lovely and a little haunting, filling Harry’s heart with something longing. 

But whatever he was longing for, something equally wonderful was here in his hand. Harry, watching the centaurs start to dance, couldn’t hope to learn it—he had half the number of required legs. So he did the best he could, trying not to trip over the hem of his dress, laughing the whole time. Centaurs cast him amused glances and did their part in dodging him when he tripped. 

Then the music changed—and suddenly he knew this dance. Or, he knew a dance. Something in his soul remembered it. The moon was full, and his body remembered a geometry danced long ago under an equally full moon, and so he danced it again, eyes to the stars. 

He wasn’t sure when Araeo began to dance it with him, but he knew it when their hearts began to beat in time to the dance. He took his eyes from the sky and found it again in Araeo’s galaxy eyes, the stars on his cheek, watched it flash in the gleam of his beaded hair. 

They danced through a starfield, the starchild and he. 

Then the music shifted—one of the drummers made a mistake, or one of the bowers lost the rhythm—and the dance released them. They stumbled together out of time, and Bane was there, ushering them out of the still-dancing centaurs who were both staring at them and trying not to stare. 

Harry was breathing so hard. Bane put a glass of something in his hand and he drank it all before he could taste it, leaving a lingering sweetness on his tongue. 

Bane was watching them, something formless and uncertain in his eyes—something scared, Harry saw, now that he knew to look for it. 

“Did a rabbit teach you that dance too?” Harry asked Araeo. 

Araeo looked at him strangely. Harry hadn’t caught him truly off guard since he’d arrived until now. “No. But your heart knew it, so mine did.” 

“A rabbit?” Bane asked. 

“No.” Harry struggled to remember. Things in the deep wood were always foggy afterwards. Well, they were foggy when they were happening, too. “A…a thing that loved the moon. It taught me. We danced.” 

The light of the full moon shone down on them, making Bane’s dark skin glow, illuminating his frown. “It’s alright,” Harry tried, attempting to sound reassuring. “It was a nice thing. It was a nice dance. Right?” He looked to Araeo.

Araeo smiled. “The perfect dance for this night.” 

“Don’t dance it anymore,” Bane said. It wasn’t really a command. It was a wish, phrased hard. 

Araeo nodded obligingly, and Harry felt more than saw that he was doing his father a kindness. “No time, anyway.” 

The strings were quieting down, one after the other fading away, until there was only a single drumbeat. Quickly and gently, Bane reached out and clasped the back of Araeo’s head, bringing his forehead to rest gently against his son’s. They rested like that for a long moment, until Bane released him, stroking the cheek that was free of paint. “My beautiful son,” Bane murmured. “My pride in you is boundless.” 

Araeo smiled at him. “Time to begin,” he said. 

Where the musicians had been, now stood Nayla, Firenze and Kireris at her sides, and the single drummer, beating a steady and complex rhythm. The rest of the centaurs stood in a semicircle around them, with a break in them for Araeo. 

Araeo released his father and then Harry’s hand (ka-bum). He walked slowly but confidently into the circle, Bane following behind him. For a moment Harry floundered, but then he saw Eidala, one of the centaurs framing the entrance, motioning for Harry to come stand beside her, filling the gap in the circle. 

Bane took his place beside Nayla, their brothers bracketing them, and the drummer slowed until her rhythm was an easy, simple heartbeat. Araeo sank slowly to his knees in front of his family, hands held open just in front of his chest as if he were asking for something to be placed in them. 

“Stargazer Band,” Nayla said. “We gather to witness Heir Araeo, my son, son of Bane, nephew to Firenze and Kireris, take his first steps from his band. We rejoice, for every step away from us towards new experience will also be a step back to us bearing new knowledge. The souls of our people are held by the stars, but our blood is here on the earth, with its endless lessons. We will never learn them all. But it is the seeking, the searching, that we must never stop.” 

Nayla beckoned to Araeo and he rose, hands moving to a different position—both touching the bottom of his chin. “My son, tell your people, as their future leader, for what will you search.” 

Araeo spoke to his mother. “Leader Nayla, honored mother. I will search for keen judgment, to better guide my sight.” Nodding, Nayla mimicked the placement of his hands, touching them to her chin.

Araeo turned to face the circle of centaurs, moving his hands to rest over his throat. “My kindred and community, I will search for keen judgement, to better guide you in the coming era.”

A ripple of murmured approval went through the centaurs. Beside Harry, Eidala hummed in satisfaction, putting her hands over her throat, as the rest of the centaurs had done.

And then, to Harry’s surprise, Araeo turned to him. His hands shifted again, to rest over his heart. “My heartkin and bulwark. I will search for keen judgment, to better guide our works.” 

Harry mirrored Araeo as the rest had done, putting both hands over his heart. Araeo gave him a minute smile and turned back to his mother. 

“Your search is worthy,” Nayla said, eyes glinting with emotion. “Let it be so.” 

“Let it be so!” cried the centaurs around the circle, Harry following a half-step behind. 

The drummer picked up the beat again, and Nayla stepped forward and grasped Araeo’s hands, and they began to dance. It was a quick, complicated little sequence they performed alone for two rounds, and then the rest of the centaurs joined in. Eidala grabbed Harry’s hands and laughed with him as he tried to keep up. 

Then Araeo was there, taking Harry’s hands from Eidala, grinning hard enough to split the night sky on his face in half.

Chapter Text

“Araeo, seriously,” Harry said. “Can you see those leaves?” 

“Yes, Snakeheart,” Araeo said, rolling his eyes. “I can see them. I have always been able to see them.” 

“But—can you see, like, the edges of them? Can you see where they touch other leaves?” 

Araeo picked his way over a log and shot his hand out to stop Harry from tripping over it. “Yes, and for the moon’s sake watch where you’re going!” 

Harry made himself focus on the path with great effort, but he couldn’t stop glancing at the summer leaves out of the corner of his eye. He had never seen them before, not really. He could see them now, thanks to the new glasses that still felt odd on his face, so long had he worn the old ones. 

Asios had visited them early that morning, sat Harry on a stool, and performed a variety of strange tests with colored glass and miniature telescopes and mirrors. He’d proceeded to fit Harry with a brand-new set of glasses, the lenses tinted ever-so-slightly blue, that allowed Harry to see what he had been apparently missing for his entire life. Tree leaves, and grass blades, and the edges of clouds, and birds in the sky. 

He couldn’t believe it. And he couldn’t stop remarking upon it. Araeo was clearly tired of hearing him go on, but Harry was enjoying riling him up a bit. 

They were just out of centaur land, and headed towards the deep wood, and then out of it again. They were cutting right through to the other side of the forest, and eventually leaving the forest altogether. Araeo had a map tucked in one of the bags he wore draped across his back. Harry had never been further than the center of the deep wood before, and felt both excited and uneasy. 

They camped that night in a little grove of ash trees. Harry built a fire and Araeo rolled over a boulder that he covered with a blanket, to support his torso while he slept. They would hunt for most of their journey, but Bane had packed them provisions to get them through the first leg.

Harry stared into the fire and nibbled a bit of dried meat, watching the sparks in something like a trance.

“What are you thinking about?” Araeo asked. Harry watched him reach right into the embers to pull out a mushroom he’d been roasting. 

“My best friend Limmy,” Harry sighed. “I wish she was here. I wish you two could meet.” 

Araeo looked at him in confusion. “Why should we not?” 

“She’s an elf,” Harry said glumly. “She isn’t allowed to leave the castle grounds.” 

Araeo frowned. “That’s terrible. Never?” 

Harry shook his head. “At least not until…not until things change.” 

“May they change soon,” Araeo said. “What is she like? Is she our age? You’re the only other young person I’ve known.” 

“She’s our age,” Harry said, grinning as he thought of her. “She’s the best. She’s…stubborn, and angry, and once she decides to do something, she won’t stop for anything or anyone.” He looked up to the sky. “She would love it out here. She knows loads about plants. What’s, um, what’s it like not having anyone to play with?” 

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Araeo said. 

The evening passed. The fire dimmed and they built it up again. Harry bundled himself in his acro-silk blanket and leaned into Araeo’s side, and they slept under the stars. 

small blue sprout

They passed through acromantula territory on the third day, but did not tarry—Mosag met them briefly and brought word that Aragog and Vogir were occupied with matters of state, but that they sent their regards, and wished them well on their journey. 

By nightfall they had come to the river that sometimes ran between and sometimes ran into acromantulae territory and the edge of the deep wood—the borders were always subtly shifting this close to the heavy magic. Today it was an almost-perfect division. 

“Have you been here before?” Harry asked. 

Araeo stared across the river at the wood on the other side. Visually, there was no difference from the forest they stood in. But when Harry opened his mouth to taste, the deep magic sank like honey onto his tongue.

“Once,” Araeo said. “On accident. I got lost.” 

“You can get lost?” Harry asked, half-joking.

Araeo ignored him. He hadn’t quite gotten used to being teased by Harry—Harry supposed it wasn’t often the band leader’s son was teased by anyone

“Will you be alright to ford the river?” Araeo asked, carefully setting one hoof into the water, and then another. 

“Yep,” Harry said, eyeing out a pattern of stones to leapfrog across. “Race you!” 

Araeo let out a “Ha!” and surged ahead, and Harry hopped for his life. It was a near thing in the end, because Araeo stumbled into a hole and nearly soaked all their supplies, allowing Harry to pull ahead, but then one of his planned leaps was wobblier than he’d expected and he had to pause while it stabilized, and then Araeo was on the other side, laughing. 

Araeo’s laugh was probably one of Harry’s favorite sounds in the world. He leapt the rest of the way and grinned. “I’ve come here before,” he said. “Not on accident. I have friends here! Can we visit them?” 

“Sure,” Araeo said curiously. “What sort of friends?” 

They began to walk through the woods. Harry took Araeo’s hand, steps faltering briefly as their heartbeats shifted. “Their names are Chikkeritt and Kerkeritt. They live…somewhere deeper. We’ll find them, probably.” 

“Probably?” 

Harry shrugged. “Can’t you taste it? It’s hard to keep track of things here. Time, place, memories.” 

Araeo closed his eyes and breathed in the smell of the deep wood, which to Harry tasted like the chocolate the twins had given him, and the heat of the deeps the basilisk traveled, and the electricity of lightning. 

“This is an ancient place,” Araeo said. “My people are leery of it. The magic of this wood is what the whole forest grows from, and the castle beyond it. It is like a being itself.” 

Harry nodded. That made sense.

They wandered for several days in the deep wood—it might have been as much as a week or two. That was how it went in this place. They wandered during the day, and rested at night, or wandered at night and rested during the day. Whatever they felt was the thing to do at any moment. Wonders were all around—magical creatures with no fear of them, plants of strange and bizarre character; the very air at times seemed to be speaking to them. There was no growing used to the deep wood’s magic, and it drew Harry under as swiftly as it consumed Araeo. 

But at last, they came upon a stream in which little golden fish flashed like coins, and Harry opened his mouth to taste—and he knew they were close.

The little cave was only a mile upstream, and even before they were in sight of it Harry was calling out: “Chikkeritt! Chikkeritt! It’s me! I’ve brought a friend! Are you there?” 

Behind him, Araeo froze. “Snakeheart,” he whispered, hands twitching at his sides. His eyes rolled around, searching, but he kept very still. “There is something on my head.” 

There was nothing on his head.

“Chikkeritt!” Harry cried, opening his arms, and then the little creature shivered into visibility and leapt from Araeo’s head to Harry’s arms, chittering in excitement. 

Harry giggled and sank to the ground, burying his face in Chikkeritt’s soft fur. Her little hands patted all over his face. Grinning, he looked up to Araeo. “Araeo, this is my friend Chikkeritt. Chikkeritt, this is my heartkin Araeo. We’re on a long journey.” 

Chikkeritt, who had a face like a tiny wrinkled person set with huge luminous eyes and long shaggy white fur, deftly climbed up Araeo’s leg and onto his shoulder, reaching one long, strong finger out to poke his cheek.

Harry giggled. Araeo looked a bit nonplussed. “Your friend is a demiguise?” 

Harry shrugged. “Is that what she is? Anyway, let’s see the baby. Where’s Kerkeritt?” 

Chikkeritt leapt of Araeo and scrambled towards the cave. Harry crouched to follow, and found to his surprise that it was a bit of a squeeze now. “Stay out here, Araeo,” he called, “and mind the fairy water.” 

“Right,” said Araeo faintly. 

In the little cave they found Kerkeritt sleeping soundly in the nest. Harry ran a loving hand across his rainbow fur. He was about the same size as he’d been when Harry had last seen him. “Still so small,” Harry murmured. “I guess demiguises take a long time to grow up, huh?” 

Chikkeritt chattered and nuzzled her face into his. She scooped Kerkeritt up, who stayed dead asleep, and crawled out of the cave. 

“We’ll have to make camp out here,” Harry said, putting down his pack in front of the cave entrance. “Because Araeo can’t fit in the cave. Sorry, Araeo.” 

“That’s alright.” Araeo looked like nothing would ever bother him again, really, because he was holding Kerkeritt in his two palms—the baby fit perfectly—and his foggy blue eyes were enraptured. He smiled gently. “It’s so strange. I can’t see a thing. I always thought it would be uncomfortable.” 

“What do you mean?” Harry tossed a bit of jerky to Chikkeritt, who did a triple leap to catch it. 

Araeo ran a thumb over Kerkeritt’s sleeping forehead. “Demiguises are a strange folk. They perceive the threads of the future and weave through them at will. I have no insight into a creature who is constantly, consciously manipulating possibility.”

“That must be why they’re so good at tag,” Harry muttered, glaring at Kerkeritt, who stuck her tongue out at him. 

Araeo giggled and brushed his cheek against Kerkeritt’s belly fur. The baby reached out and grasped Araeo’s nose in his sleep.

small blue sprout

When it rained in the deep wood, it poured. As if some god had put a river in a bucket and overturned it. They had flung Harry’s acro-silk blanket over a rocky outcropping by Chikkerit’s cave, built a small fire, and huddled around it. Every so often one of the demiguises crept to their cave entrance, checking with wide eyes to see if it was still raining, and then disappeared back inside. 

The rain flashed straight down, occasionally tinting different colors, sometimes looking like lightning was trapped inside the drops. They watched the river rise and rise with awe. 

Araeo’s hands carded gently through his hair as he combed it. Harry toasted a bit of fish over their fire. 

The rain hurled down all around them, but inside their shelter, they were warm. 

small blue sprout

They left Chikkeritt some days later. It seemed like it would break Araeo’s heart, who had formed a special bond with Kerkeritt. The baby had slept with him—on his neck, in his hands, against his back—for most of their stay. 

Araeo stiffened his chin and swiped the tears from his eyes, but Harry noticed. He was slowly realizing that though Araeo was wise and respected and a future leader of centaurs, he was still a kid like Harry. If he was honest, Harry was a little relieved. 

They left Chikkeritt’s home and headed vaguely in a northward direction, as northward as they could determine through the deep magic of the wood. 

“Do you hear that?” Araeo asked, the next morning. The sun was beaming down through the leaves, casting dappled pattern’s on Araeo’s already mottled skin that made him look like a kaleidoscope.  

Harry listened hard. “No. What?” 

“Nothing.” 

“Then why’d you ask?” 

“No, I hear nothing. There’s silence just ahead.” 

Icy tendrils reached into Harry’s stomach. He took Araeo’s hand—ba-dum.

“Snakeheart?” Araeo asked. “Is something wrong?” 

A bone white tree in a circle of barren silence. 

Harry hauled Araeo back just as he was about to put a hoof inside the circle. Realizing his true alarm, Araeo skittered back a few away, drawing Harry with him. “What is it?” he asked, voice deadly serious. He put a hand on Harry’s shoulder, and Harry realized he was breathing very hard indeed. 

He couldn’t feel the tree’s magic, not outside the circle, but he could feel it watching him. He felt an urge to take out his wand. He resisted. 

“My wand tree,” Harry said softly, once he had wrestled his fear back enough to speak. “Go around it.” 

“Stay close,” Araeo said, putting his hand through Harry’s elbow to tug him alongside as they crept carefully around the perimeter of the tree, their eyes never leaving it, until they were clear—and then by unspoken agreement they picked up the pace, jogging for a while until the ice of Harry’s fear had retreated.

“What did it do to you?” Araeo asked, one they were far away. 

“It gave me my wandwood,” Harry said, “but it took something from me. I don’t know what, but it almost killed me. Don’t ever touch it, Araeo.” 

“I won’t.” 

The rest of the day passed in subdued travel. At one point Harry put a hand to his necklace and realized Limmy’s wand was gone. She must be practicing, he thought. Please let her be practicing. Please let her not have needed it. 

They camped that night in a little glen of trees bracketed on three sides by the curve of a stream. Keeps away danger, Araeo had explained, and Harry had remembered nearly being killed by a monster in a stream once. 

Harry didn’t want to light a fire, so they ate from their provisions, and then curled up together and tried to relax. Harry’s heart was still jumping. He didn’t know why. He’d faced that tree before and he’d surely face it again—it was a being of the forest, after all. 

Then Araeo sighed and pulled his hand from Harry’s—ka-dum. “Sorry, Snakeheart. It’s my fault you can’t relax.” 

“Why?” Harry asked, frowning. 

“My heart is uneasy. I am…scared. The tree frightened me, and I have been Seeing things that make me nervous ever since.” 

“Like what?” 

Araeo’s shoulders slumped. “They are too indistinct to name.” 

Harry wrapped his acro-silk blanket closer around himself, shuffled into Araeo’s side, and took his hand with determination. Araeo looked at him, eyes wide. 

“We’re heartkin,” Harry said. “If your heart’s uneasy, then mine is too.” 

Araeo smiled widely. 

“Sometimes I picture my thoughts as potions fumes,” Harry said softly, closing his eyes. “Puffing away from me. Harmless.” 

“Meditation,” Araeo said. “My uncle taught me some things like that.”

He felt Araeo begin to take deep, even breaths, and tried to match him. Slowly, steadily, the fear faded. Slowly, steadily, sleep crept in. 

small blue sprout

Harry woke to the dead of night, Araeo breathing the heavy breath of sleep under his cheek, heartbeat steady against his palm. 

What had woken him? He listened hard, wishing now that they had built a fire to see by. 

Spring night noises. Frogs and bugs and owl calls, the wind in the trees, the rush of the little stream.

A sound like a candle being blown out.

Harry sat up and lit his elflight, the lilac glow spreading over the camp. There was nothing, nothing...there: a wisp of a thing, flickering behind a tree. 

Harry gripped Araeo’s hand tighter. It took no more than that for the centaur’s eyes to flick open, pale blue and tired. 

Harry pointed to the tree he’d seen the wisp behind. Slowly Araeo sat up, reaching for his spear and knife in their pile of supplies. He passed Harry his wand from his bag. 

Harry stood, wand raised. Araeo stayed down but crouched, ready to spring.

He tracked the flickering movement, from tree to tree to tree, closer and closer—

Harry held his wand in front of him, though he wasn’t quite sure what he would do with it.

Then it was gone. 

“Where…” Harry muttered, turning in a small circle.

Araeo was frowning, spear half-raised, and there—the tree right behind Araeo, the tree he was leaning against, there was a flicker— 

Harry cast and he didn’t even know what he cast, there was no magic and then there was magic, only intention and the magic in the air and the magic in his wand and the magic of whatever was behind that tree—

And the wisp fell out from behind the trunk in solid form, bent double to scramble on four legs, like a skinny bear, snarling and silver-haired, and it kept flickering like it was trying to become a wisp again even as it charged Araeo—

Araeo threw his spear. The creature fell back with a guttural scream, weapon through its chest, blood pouring out dull in the faint moonlight. 

Harry’s whole body was buzzing. Araeo got up, and they both moved in on the creature, which was writhing on the ground, slower and slower. Something in the back of his mind noticed that he had done elf magic with his wand, but it was quickly swamped under the pool of the creature’s blood.

Araeo’s face was twisted with pain. “Snakeheart, do you know a—a wizard spell to put it to rest?” 

Harry thought desperately, but shook his head. 

Araeo looked gutted. “Close your eyes,” he told Harry. 

Instead, Harry took his hand. 

Araeo drew his knife over the creature’s throat, and they watched in silence as it died. 

Araeo let out a sob and dropped the knife, wiping his arm over his eyes. Harry moved on instinct to hug him, and Araeo pressed his face into the top of Harry’s head and cried. 

“What was it?” Harry asked after a long while.

“Hidebehind,” Araeo said. He pulled away from Harry but didn’t drop his hand, looking once more to the creature. “They aren’t supposed to exist. Bred by wizards to be bloodthirsty. So is it really their fault for hunting us? They are abominations, but how can we blame them?” 

He drew his spear from the hidebehind’s chest and Harry picked up the knife and they walked together to the river, releasing their hands so they could wash the weapons free of blood. 

They buried the hidebehind in a shallow grave—enough to be respectful, according to Araeo, but not enough to prevent the natural order of predation. 

They did not go back to sleep that night. Instead, they walked. At daybreak, they left the deep wood.

Chapter Text

On the other side of the deep wood, there was another five days of travel through the forest. Harry had never been on this side of the wood, and neither had Araeo, but their map marked it as “ambiguous territory”.

They never found out why it was ambiguous, because whoever it was avoided them like the plague. They gave them such a wide berth, in fact, that Harry only smelled them when the wind was particularly strong in the right direction. Their magic tasted snappy and sharp. He would have liked to meet whoever it was. 

“Maybe on the way back,” Araeo said, as they trekked through dwindling woods. Araeo had been quiet since the hidebehind and the deep wood, but Harry wasn’t worried. He felt quiet too. It was a deep internal quiet that he had a theory about. The theory was: everything in the forest, maybe the world, had this kind of quiet buried somewhere inside. You just dig deep enough to find it.

They reached the edge of the forest at midday. The trees simply ended, giving way to a vista the likes of which Harry had never, ever seen, and which seemed to reach right into that quiet and send it ringing like a struck bell.

Green sloping hills rolled away from them, unfurling into mountains in the far distance upon which low clouds settled themselves. The ground was rocky and scrubby and wild, everything thrumming with a low magic that sang with the noon sun. 

On and on and on the world went, and it went joyfully, viciously, victoriously. 

Harry felt something building in his chest, he felt their heartbeats speed together, and then Araeo threw back his head and yelled, joyous, vicious, victorious. Harry gave a shout of laughter and yelled with him, and then Araeo dropped his hand and cantered out across the hill, yelling all the way. Harry flew after him. 

They ran and yelled and ran until they were utterly exhausted, and then they lay flat out under the sky, clutching their hands together and feeling the magic of the earth under them. They went straight to sleep like that, unafraid, and slept the night through. 

 

small drawing of Harry leaning against Araeo beside a a fire. Araeo is pointing at the stars.

"On and on and on the world went."

 

 

small blue sprout

They relied heavily on the map now, for the territory was strange to both of them. It was gloriously beautiful, but that did not make it known. Their destination was the low mountain range in the distance. According to the map it would take them several weeks. 

Everything was different here. The trees, the plants, even some of the insects. Harry couldn’t stop remarking on it. 

“Enough,” Araeo finally said, laughing, when he pointed out the tenth new wildflower. “Can we talk about something else?” 

“Yes,” Harry said. “How about a puzzle game?” 

Araeo’s eyes brightened. “Alright.” 

“You can only take certain things through the green glass door. Try something, and I’ll tell you if you can take it or not.” 

Araeo’s brow furrowed. “Can I take a mountain?” 

“No.” 

“Can I take a hill?” 

“Yes.”

Araeo smirked, flicking his eyes over at Harry. “Can I take Limmy? A pillow? A hiccup?

Harry scowled. “Cheater.”

Walking for so long was starting to change Harry a bit. He’d journeyed for days at a time in the forest before, but he’d never trekked like this. At first it had exhausted him, and there had been a lot of delay as Araeo had slowed his pace. But somewhere around the third and fourth week, he’d started getting stronger. His pack got easier to carry. His legs no longer ached after a day’s walk. 

He felt vital. Like the land they journeyed upon. He could tell Araeo was feeling the same.

Even so, one night he was woken by Araeo’s quiet crying. Alarmed, he lit an elflight, lighting both their faces lilac in the night. Araeo didn’t turn away, just looked at Harry, his face wet with tears, mouth pulling down hard at the corners.

Harry took his hand—it had slipped from his grip during the night. Araeo took a shuddering breath as their heartbeats shifted. 

“I miss my parents,” he finally whispered, before Harry could ask. “I’ve never been away from them for so long.” He scrubbed his free hand across his eyes. “I don’t know why I didn’t miss them before now, and I feel guilty.” 

Harry pulled Araeo’s hand into his lap and ran his fingers across his palm, the way Ava sometimes did when he was upset. He didn’t know what to say, really. “I’m sorry,” he settled for.

Araeo sniffed. “What about your parent?” 

“The…the basilisk? It’s not really my parent.” 

“But do you miss it?” 

Harry thought about it. “Yeah. But it’s often away a lot, or I am. I know it will be there. It’s different from me or you. It’s so old, it doesn’t think about time the same.”

“Who were your parents before the basilisk?” Araeo asked.

“Oh.” In a moment of surprise, Harry realized he’d never told Araeo how he came to the castle. “My parents are dead, and I lived with my aunt and uncle. I left them to come live with the basilisk.” 

“Do you miss them?” Araeo asked. “I miss my uncles.” 

Harry laughed, but it was mirthless. “They were bad people.” 

Araeo sniffed. “I’m sorry. I must seem silly to you, then.” 

“No!” Harry squeezed Araeo’s hand. “I’m…it’s confusing. I don’t wish I had parents like yours, because I have the basilisk and my mer aunts—they’re my family. But I also wish I did, because you all are—you’re—you’re like this.” He closed his free hand into a tight fist. Solid. One unit. “See?” 

“I do,” Araeo said. He sighed and tugged Harry closer, yawning. “I suppose in the end, we each have what we need. Because you’re part of my family now, and I’m part of yours.” 

small blue sprout

One evening at dusk they came to the beginnings of the foothills, and Araeo spotted a little crumbling path trodden down by animals over time. Curious, they followed it, and it led them to a lake, hidden by the craggy foothills, absolutely placid in the dusk. 

Araeo knelt to drink from it, and Harry half-filled their cookpot with water and kindled a fire. When Araeo came back up, dripping all over from a dip in the lake, he looked at the setup in delight. “Really?” he asked excitedly.

Harry grinned, and removed from his satchel the most precious of their supplies, with which he had been fair miserly since their departure: the last of a packet of tea leaves from Tippy. When the water was boiling he took it off the fire and poured in the leaves. They both leaned their heads over the steam to inhale the smell. Araeo, suspicious at first of wizard tea, had become something of an addict. 

Harry delicately poured the drawn tea into their travel cups, and Araeo measured out tiny pinches of sugar into them, and they leaned against each other and drank. Harry felt like his soul was absolutely full.

“You’re sopping,” he muttered. 

“You’re still lying on me. Anyway, you need a bath too.”

Harry giggled. “Yep. I’ll go after the tea.”

small blue sprout

The lake at night was a like a great black eye, the reflection of the moon a white iris. Harry waded in slowly. It might have been summer, but the lake was cool. Faintly, he could hear Araeo singing by the fire, a rhythmic poem they’d been making up as they journeyed. 

Bracing himself, he ducked his head under the water all at once, scrubbing at his hair. He came up with a gasp, sank back down, and grabbed a handful of sandy silt to scrub his skin with. Cold it might have been, but it was fresh and clean and he felt good.

When he’d finished washing he floated on his back, staring up at the moon and constellations that Araeo had been teaching him. There was Teodei, the great being who had created centaurs from starstuff. There was the bow, triple arrows flying, and there was the half-face of Endede, who had traded half her senses for foresight greater than any other, to guide her people from danger.

Something flipped against the water. Harry noted it and let it pass by, trying to find the other half of Endede’s face, eternally falling towards the earth. 

Something splashed again, closer. 

Heart suddenly pounding with a belated fear, Harry rolled upright and stared around, quickly picking out the source—two reflective eyes, golden from side to side, seemingly floating on their own a few meters out in the water.

Heart in his throat, Harry stared. Slowly, slowly, he could make out more details. A faintly glowing fin running above the eyes. The splash of a tail beyond it. 

“Hello,” Harry called in Mermish. “I don’t mean any harm.” 

The merperson rocketed back in shock, disappearing briefly under the water. Suddenly nervous, Harry began to swim backwards toward the shore, when they popped back up barely a meter from him, their torso rising from the water.

They hardly looked like any merperson he knew. They were whip-thin, skin a glossy black, the fins along their head so long and wide they flopped over when out of the water. They gaped at him in astonishment, and he saw that the teeth, at least, were the same: a cavern of needles.

“Can you…understand me?” he tried carefully.

The merperson flipped a bit closer. Harry stepped back, still uneasy. 

“Him be speak?” rasped the merperson.

“Uh,” Harry said. At the camp, Araeo had stopped singing. “Yes. My name is Sa-nek. Who are you?” 

“She tells Abala,” said the merwoman, pressing her hand flat against her chest. She leaned forward eagerly. “Him be speak in what manner?” 

“Snakeheart?” called Araeo softly. Harry looked back. He stood a ways back from the water, one hand cautiously on his spear.

Abala flipped backwards immediately, chattering too rapidly for Harry to follow. Harry flung his hand up, palms open. “It’s fine, Araeo,” he called. “A merwoman. Leave your spear.” He reached out to Abala. “Know my sorrow,” he said carefully. “It’s safe.” 

Abala came cautiously closer, as did Araeo, weaponless. She looked from Harry to Araeo in sheer bafflement. 

“Him be speak likewise?” 

Harry shook his head. “No, just me.” Struck by inspiration, he carefully lifted Samba’s pearl necklace from his throat. “My family taught me.” 

Abala swam closer, eyes wide, looking at the pearl. “The people? Him intends further the people?” 

“The…merpeople?” Harry asked hesitantly. “Know my sorrow. It’s hard to understand you.” 

“Know my sorrow,” said Abala. Her mouth widened in a smile. “Further the people? Fllf…further…more the people?” 

“Yes,” Harry said eagerly. “More…the people. More—further—” he tapped at his pearl. “Yes.” 

Araeo patted his shoulder, rose, and went back to the campfire. 

Abala grinned and put the flat of her hand against her cheek. Relieved that this gesture of approval was the same, Harry mimicked it. 

“Quantity of the people in what manner?” Abala said. “The people?” 

Harry mouthed the words to himself. “How much? “

Abala nodded. “How much quantity, the people?” 

“Um…a kingdom?” Her eyes were blank. “Towns and a city. A castle. A queen. Princes. An army. Many. A lot.” He resorted to widening his arms, hoping to signify the size of the mer population. She nodded, but Harry didn’t think she understood.

Areo returned with parchment and graphite. Relieved, Harry began scribbling down what he could remember of their conversation so far. She watched him curiously.

Tentatively, looking from his notes to her face, he said, “Her the people quantity?” He pointed at her for good measure.

Her face was pleased. “Excellent the people here,” she said. She made a motion with her hands—fingers fanning outwards. 

He scribbled down excellent — a lot and here — here. 

“There,” he tried, “excellent the people likewise.” He copied her finger motion, but made it a lot bigger. 

She flipped her tail in excitement and said one word he could understand. “Where?” 

Harry sat back, rubbing his eyes and scanning his scant notes desperately. Araeo laid a hand on his shoulder. It was going to be a long night.

small blue sprout

The sun rose as Harry stuffed another piece of parchment under a rock, eyes blurring with exhaustion. His mind felt like it would peel apart like an overripe orange. 

“Snakeheart?” Araeo said. “Here, have the last cup of tea.” Harry took the cup clumsily, hoping it would soothe the dryness of his throat. “She’s not back yet?” 

Harry shook his head. Abala had left several hours ago, promising—he thought—to return with others from her home. He’d spent the following hours writing near-illegible notes by elflight, extrapolating from every word Abala had said and quite a few that she hadn’t. Samba would never forgive him if he missed so much as a single syllable.

Araeo sat with him to wait, and Harry dozed off onto his shoulder. He woke to Araeo jostling him. “She’s back,” he murmured. “And she brought friends.” 

Harry saw Abala leading two merfolk behind her, cutting swiftly through the water. One of them, he noted, carried a sort of hook weapon. He sat up and pulled his sheaf of notes onto his lap. Flipping through them, he wasn’t even sure why he’d written some things. Why on earth had he put three stars next to “fingernail”? 

“I have returned, Say-nik!” said Abala, as she and the others halted a bit out into the water. He was relieved to hear he hadn’t slept away his improved comprehension of her words. Before she had left, they had managed a barely-functional mash of the two Mermishes they spoke. “These my fellows be, Undine and Isona!” 

“Hello,” Harry said, waving. “I am Say-nik. This is Araeo. We are swimmers from beyond the hills.” 

Undine, a merman with vivid red eyes, swam towards him, shunting up on the mud a bit. “Hello!” he said loudly. “Hello from the populace of Aeolian! We bring you many hellos and sentimental tidings!”

Harry grinned at him. “Thank you,” he said. “I bring you sentimental tidings from the populace of Alimnion, beyond the hills.” 

“We intend to know our sisters!” yelled Undine. Behind him, Abala was covering her smile. Harry was struggling to hide his as well. “I tell for the people of Aeolian! You tell for the people of Alimnion!” 

Isona, the merwoman with the hook, finally sighed and swam up to the bank. She put a hand on Undine’s fin, tugging a bit. “You are too voluble,” she snapped. “He be hear you.” 

Undine blushed, a sprawling bloom of white across his cheekbones. 

“Isona and Undine were…elected to speak,” Abala said. “With you. The populace desires communication with our sisters beyond the hills.” 

“In what manner?” Harry asked. “It is excellently far.”

Isona produced a woven seaweed basket with little shells braided in. Harry took it, and could feel it sparking with magic.

“We intend this device for missives among the populace,” Abala said haltingly. “I have the sister.” 

Harry grinned, absolutely delighted at how like the fishing hook post office it was. “I comprehend! I will deliver it to Alimnion.”

Isona and Undine looked relieved their plan had been communicated effectively. Isona was a bit uneasy, looking around at the shore and casting glances at Araeo. Finally, she pointed at him. “What is it?” she asked. 

Araeo leaned into his shoulder, and Harry grinned. “Araeo is a centaur. Another populace beyond the hills.” 

Tentatively, Araeo lifted a hand. “Hello.” It was a horrible mangling of the word, but it seemed to delight Undine, who lost control of his tail and splashed them all.

Chapter Text

They spent three days by the lake before Araeo felt the urge to move on. As it was his Searching, Harry didn’t protest. He was a bit exhausted of trying to learn a new type of Mermish anyway. He thought Abala felt the same, though she was sad to see him go. Together, they had been writing as much as they could about their languages, in hopes that the merfolk of Alimnion would be able to communicate easier with those of Aeolian. 

As a parting gift, she gave him and Araeo each a small coral bead which they both threaded immediately into their hair. Harry gave her one of his thestral-hair bracelets, trying and failing to explain to her what the skeletal horses were. 

The mountains loomed ahead of them, glorious and rugged. While the terrain hadn’t exactly been easy so far, this was more difficult by far. Both of them had to learn how to climb hard and avoid loose rock. Araeo had a far worse time of it than Harry, with four hooves to contend with. Harry found a solid branch for a walking stick, but Araeo couldn’t find one tall enough for him.

“We are headed for this peak,” Araeo said, pointing it out on the map. 

Harry traced the little inked hills delicately. He had recently been thinking it would be wonderful to be a mapmaker—theirs had been made by the mapmaker of the Stargazer band, and along the sides little inked centaurs pointed off to indicate things not on the map. On the borders there were beautiful illustrations of centaur constellations. 

They were two peaks away from their destination. Neither of them knew how long it would take them to reach it, because they had no experience in traveling over mountains before. On flat land, Araeo guessed it would take several days. Forging paths up and down the mountains, it would surely take much longer. 

“My mother did this alone,” said Araeo one afternoon. It was nearly time for them to find a place to sleep, but the setting summer sun on their backs felt too good to stop now. 

“She must have been lonely,” Harry said. 

“Yes.” Araeo stopped and took a moment to gaze around at where they were. Green and rocky mountains, a blue sky going purple along the edges. It very well might have been a lonely landscape, had it not been for the heartbeat between their palms.

“Do you hear that?” Araeo asked softly. “Is it the wind?” 

Harry listened hard. Araeo’s ears were better, but he could hear something, very faintly. “Almost sounds like the thestrals,” he said wistfully. 

Araeo turned in a circle, looking for the source. “There!” 

Harry put hand over his eye to look towards the sunset. Some creature was winging its way across the sky. “Is it a thestral?” 

“I don’t know! If only we had brought a spyglass….” 

But it seemed a spyglass would not be necessary, because the creature was making its way fairly quickly towards them. 

They stood and watched it come, heads tilted. It really did remind Harry of a thestral. Similar membranous wingbeats, but larger.

Much, much larger. 

Their heartbeats started to quicken. Araeo stepped back a half-step. “Is that—”

Harry was already hauling on his hand to drag him towards a nearby crop of boulders. “RUN!” 

They scrambled among the boulders just as the dragon swooped only a meter over top of them, back claws skidding across the top of the stone, throwing off sparks with a horrible squealing noise. 

Araeo fumbled his spear from his back, dropped it, and picked it up again. Harry didn’t even bother finding his wand. What was a stick to a dragon? 

The dragon wheeled around, scraping its claws overtop of their clutch of boulders again. Araeo let out a high-pitched shout of fright. 

A stupid idea sparked in the back of Harry’s mind. “Stay here!” he shouted at Araeo.

Araeo clutched his hand, appalled. “Snakeheart!” 

Harry clapped him on the shoulder. “I’m your bulwark. So let me wark.” 

Despite his fear, Araeo snorted. Patting his hand, Harry waited for the dragon to pass one more time, and then scrambled out, hauling himself up on the boulder. He stood there and waved his hands at the dragon, fear drumming in his chest. This was stupid stupid stupid. 

“HELLO!” he screamed in what he hoped was the snake language. “CAN YOU UNDERSTAND ME!” 

The dragon whipped towards him. Harry threw himself to top of the boulder, hands over his head, but the expected scrape of talons didn’t come. 

He chanced a peek upwards. The dragon was circling him, chuffing and grunting, little puffs of smoke coming from its nose. It was monstrous but beautiful—shining black scales, silver-tipped claws, and bright purple eyes. 

“I AM THE WARD OF THE BASILISK!” Harry cried. “DO YOU KNOW IT?” 

The dragon wheeled back and forth, snorting and bleating. Okay. 

“PLEASE DON’T EAT US,” Harry yelled. “WE ARE NOT TASTY.” 

The dragon, wingbeats slowing, gently lowered itself to the ground a few meters away. It stared at Harry and shook its head from side to side, pawing at the ground. 

Araeo peeked out. “I think it can sort of understand you but can’t talk back,” he whispered to. 

That sounded incredibly frustrating to Harry. He leapt down from the boulder and approached the dragon, noting just how large it was up close—four times his height at least. 

“Umm.” Harry poked his tongue out of his mouth as he thought. “Hungry?” He asked it. He mimed chewing. “Food?” 

The dragon cocked its head. 

“Araeo? Food?” 

“On it.” 

The last of their dried meat came soaring out of the crop of boulders. Harry unwrapped it and threw it towards the dragon. The dragon sniffed it curiously, and then snapped it up in one bite. It lowered its head to the ground and stared at him intently. 

“I don’t have more meat,” Harry said. “Sorry.” 

The dragon chuffed and snorted. Araeo threw out their leftovers from the night before: spiced tubers and smoked fish. The dragon ate those. Araeo passed him, with some grumbling, the little sweet flatcakes they’d spent a whole evening making. The dragon ate those.

“I’m not giving it the spices!” Araeo called. “I’m just not, Snakeheart!”    

“Any more of those squashed berries?”

“Oh—yes, here.” 

The dragon ate those too. 

“That’s literally all we have,” Harry told it. The dragon evaluated his honesty, and then galloped up to him and shoved its face into his chest. It was like being hit by a tree, but Harry gamely patted its scales. 

A magnificent idea occurred to him. “Can I ride you?” he asked it. “If it wouldn’t be much trouble? Just for a bit?” 

“Um,” said Araeo in the boulders. “What are you saying to it?”

The dragon considered him, purple eyes wide, and then flattened its body to the ground. Whooping, Harry scrambled atop it, bracing himself between its spines. “Be right back, Araeo!” he hollered, and the dragon launched into the sky. 

Ten minutes later the dragon flipped upside down in midair five meters off the ground. Miraculously, Harry bounced. He lay on his back and waved at the dragon as it flew away.

Araeo clopped over to stand over him, arms folded. “Excellent warking,” he said coolly, though he couldn’t stop the corner of his mouth from twitching. “You lose all of our food and almost die falling off a dragon.” 

Weakly, Harry gave him a thumbs up. 

 

Harry and Araeo peek out of a group of bolders at the purple dragon flying above them.

What was a stick to a dragon? 

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“There,” Araeo said breathlessly. Not breathless from the climb, though they had climbed, but breathless from what lay in front of them: the entrance to a cave. 

Harry double and triple-checked their map, and knew he was right. The cave was bordered by two carved stone snakes, which were described on the map. 

The sun was setting behind them. “Camp here and go in the morning?” Harry asked. “Or go now?” 

It was right there. Nothing could be seen beyond the entrance—a true darkness fell inside. 

“Go now,” Araeo said, the obvious answer. 

Neither of them stepped forward. 

“Do you know what we’ll find?” Harry asked.

Araeo shook his head. “It’s forbidden for those who have gone on the journey to tell others of it.” 

“Death quest,” Harry murmured. Araeo looked at him in alarm. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s a mer thing. A joke.” 

They didn’t go in. Harry glanced at Araeo, and saw his brow was pinched, lips trembling. 

“Araeo!” Harry pulled him away from the entrance. “What’s wrong?” 

“I—I—” Araeo ran his free hand over his face. “Snakeheart, what if I don’t find it?” 

“Find…?” 

“Find keen judgment! Find what I’m Searching for!” His breath was coming fast. “How will I know? And how can I return without it?” 

“I don’t know,” Harry said honestly. “But all we can do is go forward, right? Like the mer say. Aelisf.” 

“Ever upward,” Araeo said, lips white.

Harry nodded. 

“Right.” Araeo steeled himself, redoubled his grip around Harry’s hand. “Upward, then.”

 

Harry and Araeo face the entrance to a cave full of pink crystals, bordered by two carved snakes.

"Upward, then."

 

They stepped into the cave. 

They stepped into the blackness of space.

Harry lost the ground beneath his feet, the feel of air on his skin, the sense of the cavern mouth behind him. The only constant remaining was the meeting of their palms, a spark that proved existence, for nothing else did. Was he even breathing? He couldn’t hear his breath.

Four pinpricks resolved in the darkness. Four yellow eyes, growing closer. They moved from side to side, slithering. 

And then they halted. Four eyes blinked at once. 

Hatcher? 

Harry gasped. He felt the breath pull down his throat. Araeo was humming beside him, the song they had been writing. There was ground under his feet, though he still could not see it. 

Those eyes resolved into two bodies—two snakes. Huge as the carvings outside the cavern.

Grey and dark grey, their bodies entwined, their eyes familiar. 

Do you know us? 

Their voices were in his mind. He answered aloud. “I know you,” he said. “I’ve missed you. I kept your eggshells.” 

Their joy sparked through him. They came and bumped their noses against his. He rubbed their scales and placed kisses under their eyes. “Are you warm enough?” he asked.

We are warm! This is the warmest place for us! 

“Araeo, these are my friends!” Harry said. Araeo did not respond. “Araeo?” Harry turned to look. Araeo’s foggy eyes were vacant, his hand lax in Harry’s. “Araeo!”

The Searcher is not here. 

“Where is he?” Harry asked, fear chilling him. 

He is Searching, of course. Are you searching too, Hatcher? 

Harry considered this. “Not like him. I’m a bulwark.” 

You were our bulwark! We want to repay you! 

“You don’t have to repay me.” 

We want to! They swept around his feet, making him take a step forwards. Walk, Hatcher. 

“Can I take him?” 

His body may follow you. But he is elsewhere.

“Alright.” So Harry walked, the snakes tangling about his legs, urging him on. He pulled on Araeo’s hand and the centaur followed him, but mindlessly.

Slowly, the darkness got lighter, and lighter, and lighter… until he was in a bright cavern, bristling with crystal stalactites like a mermaid’s mouthful of teeth. They shone gentle pink, like he trod inside a rose petal. Harry nearly had to squint to take it all in. It was simply glorious. 

The snakes ushered him in. Our gift to you, Hatcher, bulwark. Know and be known. 

“What do you mean?” Harry tried to ask, but he could no longer talk. His soul had come loose from his body. 

He was within the rosy crystals and the rosy crystals were within him. He breathed with their slow growth; they bristled along the edges of his heart. They melted into his blood; he solidified into their prisms.

They were he and he was they and together

they 

Saw. 

Red, red eyes— 

“Not Harry, not Harry, please not Harry!” 

Human teeth dripping with shimmering white liquid— 

“Stand aside.” 

A stone glowing with a blue rune— 

Ink fading into a page— 

“Aelisf!” 

A curse, a green light that was familiar—

the basilisk falling still. 

Chapter Text

“Basilisk! No! Basilisk! Basilisk!”

“Snakeheart, come on. Stand, come on, Snakeheart, please, come, please—” 

“Basilisk, basilisk, basilisk!”

Arms around him. His legs collapsed. Lifted, draped over something, jostled and moving. 

The darkness was all-consuming.

Goodbye, Hatcher. Thank you.

small blue sprout

“Snakeheart, please, please, open your eyes. I can’t do this without you. Snakeheart, please. Give me your hand. Snakeheart!” 

The words trickled into Harry’s brain and made sense for the first time. He coughed. His throat felt ragged. 

“Snakeheart? Are you back?!”

Harry pulled one hand from his face—sunlight hit his eyelids, and he winced—and groped around. Araeo’s hand slid into his instantly. Their heartbeats slipped into sync, and something in Harry’s soul straightened itself. 

He took his other hand from his face. His eyes felt crusty and tired. “Araeo?” His voice was hoarse.

“Snakeheart,” Araeo said with relief. 

Harry sat up, scrubbing at his eyes with his sleeve. He cracked his eyes open and the noon light nearly blinded him. Araeo’s face was a rictus of distress. “Where are we?” Harry croaked. “What happened?” 

“Half a mile from the cavern, perhaps. When I returned to myself I found you on the floor of the cave, hysterical. You wouldn’t respond to me. I—I carried you on my back out of the cave. You must never tell my father.” 

“Is that bad?” Harry asked wearily, trying to remember the past … however long it had been. 

“It is considered a great insult.” 

“I won’t tell.” 

“You were crying out for the basilisk.”

And Harry remembered. He gave a great gasp of pain, free hand pressing against his heart. “Oh, no, no.” 

Araeo put one strong hand against his cheekbone and tilting his head to meet his cloudy eyes. “Snakeheart, do not fall back into it! I do not know what you saw, but you must understand: the future is never fixed! My people learn this lesson even before we learn the names of the stars! For a single so-called prophecy, the interpretations, complications, and consequences are myriad. Whatever you saw, your mind is filling in the worst possible outcome. But to believe you saw the one true future… it is arrogance and folly, Snakeheart. And it will lead you to ruin.” 

Harry put his hand over Araeo’s desperately, clutching it against his cheek. “I saw the basilisk killed by a curse,” he said. 

Araeo shook his head. “No you did not. What did you see? Strip your interpretations from it. Do not impose your assumptions.” 

“I saw a curse hit the basilisk. I saw it fall.” 

“And that is all?” 

Harry nodded.

With his thumb, Araeo stroked the lines of Harry’s scar. “That is all,” he said softly. “You do not know what the curse was. You do know how cast it and for what reason. You do not know why the basilisk fell—whether death or sleep or some other state. Do you hear me?” 

Harry nodded. “I hear you.” He took a deep breath, and Araeo tentatively released him, passing him a cup of water. Harry drank it greedily. He felt destroyed. He didn’t feel the panic rising in him as strongly, but neither did he completely believe Araeo. He would keep telling himself, though, until he believed it.

And then he realized what Araeo had not mentioned. “Your Searching! What happened?” 

Araeo’s mouth quirked. “I cannot exactly tell you, Snakeheart. But I found what I was looking for, in a way I did not expect.”

Harry smiled in relief. “Good.” 

“I am curious,” Araeo said. “My mother never mentioned that you would find something as well. Were you also searching? Why did you not tell me?” 

Harry shook his head. “The guardians of that place were old friends. They wanted to repay me.” 

“Guardians?” Araeo asked curiously. “The only guardians I met were two ashwinders.” 

“Snakes?” Harry asked. 

Araeo nodded.

“Those were them. I watched them hatch a long time ago.” 

Araeo gaped at him, and then shook his head, laughing. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. At this point I’m amazed you aren’t friends with the rocks and grass we pass.”

“Not yet,” Harry said, grinning. “Give me time.” 

small blue sprout

The journey home went faster. Araeo said that was because they were familiar with the path now—a trick of the mind, for it took just as long. The heat of summer was almost upon them, and Harry didn’t even need his acro-silk blanket to sleep under anymore. Some nights even leaning against Araeo was simply too hot to bear comfortably. 

He tried to recapture the serenity he had felt on the way to the caves, but it had been shattered by his vision. Anxiety and dread crept in day by day—as did the urge to see the basilisk with his own eyes, to make sure it was alive. Over and over he repeated Araeo’s warning to himself, but that dread never lessened. 

Still, he found that tranquility again in moments. At the sight of a far-away winged shape wheeling through the sky. The moment he and Araeo thought to turn around to see where they’d been, and the sheer majesty of the mountains knocked all of the words from them for hours. When they came upon a flock of burrowing birds who were so unafraid as to come peck at their feet in curiosity. Those cooler nights with Araeo, hand in hand, meditating to their heartbeat. 

They journeyed back across the foothills, and back into the rolling hills, and back into the forest. Though it would take them longer, they decided to go around the deep wood. 

Neither admitted it, but the secret reason was to prolong their journey. Harry was desperate to see the basilisk and eager to reunited with his friends, but the thought of leaving Araeo after so many months of symbiosis was altogether horrid. He knew Araeo felt the same, but to speak it was to give it power. 

But at last, the moment came when they stepped back into centaur territory. Harry felt the weight of everything fall back onto his shoulders, a weight he’d never realized was there until it was back: his friends, his family, his duties, his troubles. 

He felt Araeo’s eyes on him, and turned to meet it. Araeo’s foggy eyes were welling up with tears. 

“Don’t,” Harry said, “or I will too.” His throat felt very hot. 

“Why shouldn’t we?” Araeo asked. “Do wizards think crying is bad?” It was too late anyway, and tears were streaming down his cheeks. 

“I don’t know,” Harry said. Hadn’t the basilisk once asked him that? Where had he learned it? Araeo’s heartbeat was sorrowful and so was Harry’s, and he let himself cry. 

Firenze and Kireris met them a few miles from the village. They greeted them solemnly, a hint of oncoming ceremony, but Harry could see their joy underneath. They embraced them both—Harry was surprised and happy to be greeted as a friend—took their packs, and walked them back to the village.

With every step they took, Araeo’s hand clenched tighter around his. By the time they were ten minutes from the village, both of them were trembling.

This is all wrong, Harry thought suddenly. It shouldn’t be like this at all. 

“Wait. Firenze? Kireros?” 

Everyone stopped at the tone of his voice. Araeo’s uncles looked at him. 

“Can Araeo and I please have a moment to speak?” he asked. 

“Of course,” Kireros said, bowing his head. “We will wait over there.” 

Harry watched them go, and then turned to Araeo, who was looking at him in distress. With intent, Harry released Araeo’s hand. 

There was a moment as their heartbeats slipped apart. A bit of calm came filtering back, and some of the overwhelming agony faded.

“We’re making it worse,” Harry said. “Do you really want your Searching to end this way? It feels like we’re marching to a funeral.” 

Araeo took a deep breath and scrubbed his face with his hands. “You’re right. It’s only that I don’t want you to go.” 

“I don’t want to leave you,” Harry said. “But I want to go.” 

“That’s what I meant,” Araeo said. “We have work to do.” 

With their hearts distant, calm was returning. Harry’s nerves settled. He beckoned Araeo close and put his forehead against his. “I don’t even live a day’s walk away,” he said, laughing slightly. “I’m in the forest all the time.” 

Araeo grinned. “You’re right. We’re being dramatic.” 

“Yep.” Harry smiled. “Ready now?” 

“Yes.” 

They caught up to Firenze and Kireros in better spirits. They didn’t join hands, but they did walk close enough to brush together on odd steps. 

In the village center Nayla and Bane were waiting. The village had gathered again, and the moment Araeo and Harry stepped inside they began cheering, tossing flowers over them, shouting and yelling and rushing to hug them. When they finally made it up to Nayla, Harry tried to hang back, but Araeo seized his elbow and hauled him up with him. 

Nayla and Bane embraced their son, and then Harry—even Bane, and to Harry’s shock, it felt genuine.

“Stargazer Band,” Nayla shouted, over the cheers. “We gather to witness Heir Araeo, my son, son of Bane, nephew to Firenze and Kireris,” 

“—heartkin to Snakeheart,” Araeo butted in, to the laughter of the assembled centaurs. 

“—heartkin to Snakeheart,” Nayla agreed, lips twitching, “as he returns to us with new knowledge. He is an example of our souls’ need for constant searching, seeking, for growth and knowledge. My son, face your people and tell them what you have returned with.” 

Araeo placed his hands over his throat, facing the centaurs. “My kindred, I went to seek keen judgement. I have returned with insight into future choice, with which I will guide our community.” 

There was a deep moment of silence, and then the centaurs placed their hands over there throats in approval. 

Araeo turned to Harry, hands over his heart. “My heart and bulwark, with this insight I will guide our works.”

Grinning, Harry put his hands over his heart.

Araeo turned to his mother, hands over his chin. “Leader Nayla, honored mother. With this insight, I will guide our family.” 

Nayla placed her hands over her chin. “Your knowledge is worthy. Welcome home, my son.” 

A cheer went up, and all of the sudden there was music and food and dancing, and people wanted to talk to Araeo and also Harry, and they gave the day to celebration. 

small blue sprout

“Basilisk! Basilisk?” 

“Snakeheart!” 

At the sound of the basilisk’s voice, something settled in Harry’s heart. He ran the rest of the way through the hall, crashing into the basilisk’s nose as it moved swiftly towards him.

“You’re okay,” Harry gasped. “You’re okay. I was so worried.” 

“You feared for me?” the basilisk asked. “Why?” 

“I had a vision.” Harry ran his hands over the basilisk’s scales, knocking his forehead against its snout. “I saw you falling to a curse.” 

“As if I could fall to a wizard’s spell ,” said the basilisk derisively. “Prophecy. So often … flighty. Easily misread.” 

“I know,” Harry said. “Araeo told me. But I couldn’t help it. How have you been?” 

“Well,” said the basilisk, pleased. “Quite well. I have made friends with your elf.” 

“With Limmy?” Harry asked, baffled. “How can you talk to her?” 

The basilisk flicked its tongue towards Sal’s room. “We make do. She has taken to coming here to practice wandwork. She brings me food. I have changed my mind regarding cooked meat, Snakeheart.” 

“That’s great,” Harry said distractedly, going over to Sal’s room. Sure enough, open on the desk were all the notes he’d take on classes he attended, and spell books from the free book room, and even some of Salazar’s books. “Wow.” 

“She is quite adept,” said the basilisk. “I think. Watching becomes a problem, you know.”

“That’s great,” Harry said, warmth blooming in his chest. “That’s really great.” 

“Many months are not so long to me,” said the basilisk. “But to you they are significant. Come and tell me of your travels.” 

“Yes, alright,” Harry said. “I have things to put away, too. Gifts.” They headed into the den, where Harry stopped dead. 

“What is wrong?” 

“It’s just … I’d almost forgotten. Not forgotten, but, you know …” He walked over to the green curse over the eggs and put his hand on it. Once upon a time it had hurt to touch. Now it was just … simmering. Malevolent. How he hated it. 

Harry turned away. They would be free. He would do it. All he needed was time.

Chapter Text

Harry had expected to have some trouble slipping back into castle life, but he faced almost none. Contrary to those last moments of foreboding with Araeo, being back among people in general and other friends in particular was fulfilling. He felt rejuvenated by his time away. He was certainly stronger physically, and perhaps a little more meditative on the whole, and he took to going on long walks around the lake at dusk, but he also felt more alive. Vital.

Limmy noticed it when he visited her in the greenhouses, letting out a shriek and throwing herself upon him. 

“Snake! You is back!” In delight she kissed his cheek, clasping his hands and jumping up and down. “I haves so much to be telling and showing you!” 

He grinned at her, laughing. “Me too! I is missing you so much Limmy! I is wishing all the time you could be there with me.” 

She nodded gravely, but was too happy to see him for her mood to lower. “I is making friends with … with your family,” she said, lowering her voice. “And studying every second I haves.” 

“It’s telling me!” Harry said excitedly. “I thinks it's wonderful!” 

She took a step back from him, holding his hands out, and examined him. “You is looking well,” she said finally. She shook his hands, making his arms wobble. “Very well. I is glad.” 

“Me too,” Harry said. “Here, I is bringing you this.” He presented her with a stone he had found on the lake shore: it was pale orange with a perfectly circular hole through the middle.

“A hag stone!” Limmy held it up to her eye, peering at Harry through it. “Guess what these is also called?” 

“What?” 

“Serpents' eggs.” She grinned at him, lowering the stone. “It is being said that by looking through a hag stone, you can sees truth that is being concealed.” 

“Wicked.” 

She removed the necklace she was wearing, one with a vivid pink feather on it, and strung the hag stone onto it. “There. My gifts is together. Here, plant these moondew seeds. They only goes a fingernail-length into the soil, a handspan apart from each other.” 

Harry boosted himself up onto the table and picked up a tray of seeds. “What does they do?” 

“Moondew is important for many potions. Draught of Living Death. Wiggenweld. As an antidote.” 

Harry began poking the seeds into the soil. He could feel little spots of magic inside them, waiting to grow. “So what is you working on while I is gone? I saw you is using Sal’s books.” 

“The ba—your family is saying I can,” LImmy said, a tad defensively, leaning over the burlap sack she was cutting.

“Course you can,” Harry said easily. “What is you learning?” 

“So much!” Limmy’s ears fluttered in excitement. “All about wizard magics and how it works. Others isn’t knowing about the different types of magic, I is discovering. Not wizards or elves.” 

“They isn’t?” Harry asked, startled. “None of them?” 

Limmy shrugged. “I don’t thinks so. No-one knows how elf magic is different from wizard magic. They knows it is different, but they isn’t knowing how. And I is also experimenting: trying to do wizard magic and elf magic with my wand.” 

Harry pushed a seed far too deep in his excitement, and dug it back up with a twig. “I did that! I mean, I is doing that! In the deep wood, I is using elf magic with my wand, to makes a hidebehind appear!” 

Limmy nodded. “At first, the bas—I mean, your family—and I is talking, and we isn’t thinking it is possible. Because a wand is entirely wizard magic. But then I is remembering how we is making our wands: with elf magic!” 

“That’s right,” Harry said. “I isn’t using a wizard spell to make my wand, I is using elf magic—using the magic already inside the triplicate.” 

“So, I is thinking: why shouldn’t I be able to do elf magic with an elf magic wand?” Limmy had to put down her scissors in excitement. “And so I is doing it—I is making an elflight with my wand!” 

“Cool!” Harry exclaimed. He wanted to try it right away, but he had left his wand in the den. “When you comes visit next, you haves to show me!” 

Limmy nodded, and was silent for a moment. Then she said, “I is thinking about … telling other elves.” She shook her head. “But I isn’t ready yet. It is still too dangerous. She peered at him, huge eyes serious, and tapped the meat of her palm, a silent hint to secrecy. Harry tapped the little promise circle on his hand in acknowledgement. “Things is getting hard,” she said softly. “No, not hard. Urgent. After Benny … well. It is being horrid and tragic, but his death is stirring the other elvish houses across the country. They is now calling for quicker action.” She cut the last panel of burlap with a loud riiiip. “I agrees. And when it happens, I is going to be at the forefront.” 

“Me too,” Harry said. “I is being there with you, if you wants me.” 

Limmy grinned at him and held her hag stone up to her eye.

 small blue sprout

As soon as Ava related his discovery to Samba, he was nearly ordered to the lake for a face-to-face meeting, something Samba only decreed when there was information she felt too important to risk errors in translation. 

But even a meeting with Samba did not warrant an entrance into Alimnion, the mer kingdom’s capital. And so they met in Ava’s family room, where a swinging table had been hung, suspended from four points along the walls, littered with seaweed scrolls held down by paperweights. Ava’s mothers were all out of the house—Loch at the Gills, Cassipa in Alimnion, and Xara at the sanctuary. 

“And this here,” Samba said, jabbing a finger at his notes. “Three stars by 'fingernail'? Why?” 

Harry shrugged. “I don’t know. I was exhausted.” 

Samba bent low over the paper, as if she could make sense out of his scribblings through proximity. Leaning with one elbow on the table, Ava sighed and spun the seaweed basket in a bored manner. 

“Apprentice,” Samba snapped. “Is this not interesting enough for you?”

Ava sat up straight. “No, mer Samba, it’s, er, fascinating. I just love old words for human body parts.” It was true; merfolk didn’t have fingernails as humans did. Instead they had patches of rough scale-like skin. 

Harry pulled out a scroll with a drawing he’d done of Abala on it. “I didn’t even think to draw her hands,” he said despairingly.

Samba tugged the paper over and stared at it, eyes flicking sarcastically between it and Harry.

“It’s not that bad!” Harry cried, yanking it back. “I did my best!” 

Samba sighed. “I know you did, Snakeheart. To be true, what you did compile is, to use a human expression, worth it’s weight in gold.” She eyed him. “We have entered into an historic period for the mer. A previously unknown society beyond the forest? So isolated that not only did our languages diverge, but so did significant physical traits? There is absolute uproar across Alimnion. The scientists, linguists, diplomats, anthropologists, historians … basically any half-shelled mer recognizes that we are now living through a massive cultural shift. In fact ….”

She swam to her bag and rifled through it, pulling out a scroll. “The queen herself has written you a commendation. She wishes to express her gratitude. You did not have to go to the lengths you did, yet you had the interests of the mer at heart.” 

Harry took the scroll eagerly. Ava crowded over his shoulder to read. It was a beautifully-written Mermish document praising his integrity, signed at the bottom with Queen Celadon’s massive flourish of a signature. “Wow,” he said. “This is … wow.” 

“Indeed.” Samba hesitated. “In case you are not aware … this document, the queen’s approval … it gives you some sway, Snakeheart. Perhaps a small favor. Use it wisely.”

“I will,” Harry promised.

“Now,” Samba said, pulling another sheet of paper to her. “This construction: you have translated 'in what manner' too mean 'how' in general. Explain to me what led you to make this decision.” 

Ava sighed. 

small blue sprout

Harry spread his parchment along the stone floor, the better to visualize his thoughts. On one sheet he had drawn a massive dome with zig-zags coming off it. Beside it he wrote: 

Egg Curse - Facts
1. Green
2. Cast by Tom Riddle around 50 years ago
3. Prevents eggs from hatching or dying 
4. Eggs will hatch on Riddle’s command

Failed Counterspells
1. Finite
2. Alohomora
3. Abolefaceo omnis

Ideas to break Curse
1. Dig under
2. Cut through - what with? Magic knife? 

“Ooh, you could try drilling through,” Myrtle said. “Fred told me about a drill, it’s a muggle thing—it spins really fast and pierces through stone.” 

Dutifully, Harry wrote down “drill.” Myrtle gave a thoughtful hum and floated in a somersault. Harry liked to work in Myrtle’s toilet: it was private, for one, and well-lit, for another—an enchanted window near the ceiling let in natural light. 

“I went to dinner with them,” Myrtle said shyly, upside down. “The twins and Lee. Before school let out.” 

It took Harry a moment to understand. “Myrtle, that’s wonderful!” he said, holding up his hand for a high five. “How was it?” 

“Odd at first,” Myrtle said, passing her hand through his. “People stared at me. Most of them didn’t know who I was. But the twins acted like I ate with them every night. And Lee told me all about his summer plans. I had … fun.” 

“I’m really happy for you,” Harry said sincerely. “I know it must have been very hard.” 

“Funny.” Myrtle did a handstand, her hands sinking into the stone. “I thought it would be. But once I was there … I couldn’t remember why I’d been afraid. It’s just the twins. Oh, and speaking of—they left you some ‘provisions.’”

Harry put down his chalk. “Provisions?” 

Myrtle retrieved a small box from the top of a toilet tank, putting it down on his notes. “I think they think you’re in trouble or something. They kept asking me how you ate.” 

“What’d you tell them?” 

“That you catch rats and drink toilet water.”

Harry guffawed, and opened the box. Inside, a little note read: 

Dear Titchy T: 
Myrtle wouldn’t tell us where you’ve gone. Do you really eat toilet rats? We hope not. Eat these instead. Except for the ones in the red wrappers—those will make your ears giggle for twenty minutes. You can eat them if you want, we suppose, but we suggest tricking someone else into eating them. Also, here’s something we’ve been working on—powder that makes a pink cloud. We’re trying to get it to make a black cloud, but for now it’s pink. Enjoy. Please don’t eat toilet rats. If you ate toilet rats and died, Percy would never know that he has an admirer, and seriously, Snake, he needs the win.
Yours, Gred and Forge

Harry red the letter to Myrtle, both happy and irritated, a combination of emotions he experienced around the twins quite often. It was sweet, though. Perhaps when they came back next year, he’d let them catch him eating rabbit and pretend it was a toilet rat.

“Oh my gosh, I almost forgot!” shrieked Myrtle. “The hugest news.” 

“What?” Harry asked eagerly. He loved castle gossip.

“You know Dumbledore?” 

Harry rolled his eyes. “Yes.” 

“He lost a hand!”

small blue sprout

“You know, Severus, when I suggested you take the air, I meant with a bit of sun as well.” 

Severus didn’t respond, staring resolutely at a statue of a rearing unicorn.

Dumbledore sank down beside him on the bench, wincing a bit. He took off his spectacles and rubbed the bridge of his nose. The lines on his face were pronounced, and the bags under his eyes … had those always been there? 

Harry, ensconced in a nearby bush in the courtyard, felt a great wave of grief fold over in his heart. Albus Dumbledore was a man of unknown but great age, yet he had never looked … old. He looked it now. 

“Talk to me, Severus.”

“I should have done better!” spat Severus, eyes never leaving the statue. “I failed you, Albus. I should have acted more quickly. I should have realized …” 

Dumbledore laughed, but there was no joy in it. “You failed me? Severus, my boy … I put on that ring. You saved my life.”  

Severus shook his head furiously. “I should have known. There was something about the ring, it wasn’t like the locket, I should have seen the look in your eyes—” 

“You think it enchanted me?” 

Severus slipped his eyes to the side, glancing at Dumbledore. “… did it not?” 

Dumbledore smiled. It was the saddest smile Harry had ever seen. “No, Severus.” 

“… no?” Severus looked horrified. 

“I was only enchanted by … possibility. I lost control of myself. I thought if only I could put it on—if only I could see her one more time—if only I could touch them both again, before it all went—before I—” 

“Albus!” To Harry’s alarm, there were silver tears falling down Dumbledore’s face. 

“I am sorry, my boy.” Dumbledore didn’t bother wiping his tears, just turned his face to the moonlight. “As the mer say, know my sorrow. I have always found it a more fitting phrase. They do not ask for forgiveness, but simply acknowledgment of a wrong. Forgiveness may or may not come, but sorrow must be known.” 

“I still don’t understand why!” Severus said desperately, face aghast in the twilight. “You knew what it was!” 

“I knew too well,” Dumbledore said. “My greatest fault has always been regret. It can consume me. It consumed me tonight, and made me foolish. If you hadn’t been there, my boy, had you not judged in a second the only course of action ....”

He raised his left hand. It was not flesh, but a glinting silver construction of light. His sleeve fell away, and Harry saw that his hand had been severed quite cleanly at the wrist. 

“I would be dead or dying,” Dumbledore said. “So put away your regret, Severus, for that will always be my burden.” 

“You—you are such a selfish old man,” Severus gasped, and he stood and swept from the courtyard. 

Dumbledore held his face to the sky for a moment more, and then put his face in both of his hands. 

Harry, from the bush, watched. 

Chapter Text

“Snakeheart!” 

“Hello Firenze!” Harry said excitedly. He set his roll of spider silk on the ground for a moment so he could put his hands to his chin and heart in greeting.

But Firenze, trotting towards him, stuck out his hand. “This is the human custom, yes?” 

“Er, yes.” Harry let his arm be pumped vigorously up and down. “How are you?” 

“I am very well. Might I carry your burden for a while? I believe we are going the same way.” 

“Sure.” Harry passed him the spider silk. It was astonishingly light even in great quantities, but it was still unwieldy. This was a sampler bundle for the mer of a new weave the acromantulae were developing. 

Firenze tucked it under one arm. “Quite impressive, your position as emissary. An honor. You are a fitting match for Araeo, naturally. But I had a question on human culture for you, if you would be so kind as to answer.” 

“Sure,” Harry said, and in the same breath, “how is he?” 

“Excellent,” Firenze said in satisfaction. “Working alongside my sister in most things now to learn the skills of leadership. But, my question. Your designation as emissary puzzles me. I wasn’t aware that human children took on such important duties at such a young age. I believed this was one trait that separated humans from other beings. Am I wrong?” 

Harry thought about it. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. “I’m sorry. I don’t … well, er, I don’t know that many other humans my age.”

Firenze shrugged it off. “I suppose it’s simply a stereotype. I’ll have to mind myself.” He ran a hand over the spider silk. “Beautiful work. Do you usually transport it yourself?” 

“No, this is just a sampler. Mosag usually brings it to the edge of the forest.” 

“The young heir. I like her very much.” Firenze reached down and held a branch away from Harry’s face. 

“Thanks. You know her?” 

“Certainly. The acromantulae and the centaurs must treat as well. She will make a fine king one day.” 

“I think so too. Plus, she plays a really good Worag the Wonderful.” 

Firenze looked at him quizzically. “If you say so.” 

“Is Araeo … I mean, did he …” Harry struggled to phrase his question without embarrassing himself. “We don’t have a way to send letters, so I wondered ….” 

“Ah, of course! It’s not a coincidence I met you, Snakeheart. My nephew sent me, with a missive.” 

Harry’s heart lit up. “What is it?” 

Firenze stopped walking and pulled something from a small cloth bag draped across his back: a rolled-up note and something wrapped in a bit of leather. Harry opened the note eagerly.

Snakeheart,

Uncle is delivering this note for me. Wish I could bring it to you myself, but mother is keeping me so busy with duties! It is joyful to be so involved with my people, but my heart misses you. Our next meeting is too far away. Do you recall the meadow we passed through, with the blue flowers that opened and closed like they were breathing? I have been thinking about it often. 

I have seen something, too, Snakeheart: the moon bodes ill. Things are about to change. 

But take heart, for we face the future together. 

Your heartkin,
Araeo

Warm happiness and cold foreboding pushed up against each other in Harry’s chest. He cast an uneasy eye up to the sky, but it was still day yet.

“The moon bodes ill?” he asked Firenze.

Firenze stepped back and forth restlessly. “Best heed his words and take care.” 

The package contained a leather band with three green glass beads strung along it. “A bracelet?” Harry asked. 

“No, for your hair.” Firenze tossed his own hair, displaying how the topmost section of it had been portioned into a pony tail.

“Oh!” Harry pulled his hair back, looping the leather twice around it. Having his hair off of his neck felt odd by now, and the wind brushed the tops of his ears. He grinned at Firenze. “What do you think?” 

“Here.” Firenze adjusted the band so the beads were visible. “Very handsome.” 

Harry fiddled in his pack and pulled out a lumpy package he’d carried for a week and a half. He opened it and took out the note to add a quick thank-you for the warning and the hairband, then passed it to Firenze. “For Araeo.” 

“Wonderful. Would you mind if I walked further with you? I enjoy your company. And I have always been curious about human culture. Now that I have a human relation ….” 

“I don’t mind, I like you.” Harry flushed. He hadn’t meant to say that. 

Firenze gave a startled laugh. “Well, I like you too, Snakeheart. Perhaps you could tell me what it’s like to be the human emissary between two other species?” 

“I never really thought about it like that,” Harry said. “To the merfolk, I’m officially a basilisk, anyway.” 

Firenze snorted in amusement, giving him a sidelong look as he stepped over a log. “Strangest looking basilisk I’ve seen.” 

“Have you seen many?” Harry scrambled over the log a little less gracefully.

“Good point,” said Firenze. 

“I’m not the only emissary working with the acromantulae. Hagrid is, too,” Harry said. “You know him, right?” 

There was Firenze’s deep blush, which was the thing Harry liked the most about him. “The steward? I wouldn’t say I know him. We’ve spoken. I admire him greatly—I know that, curious as I am about humans, I could not put up with the things he allows. He is incredibly patient and forgiving.” 

“Aragog said something like that,” Harry remembered. “What, just because they kicked him out of school?” 

Firenze’s face was pensive, turned up to the sun. “Kicked out of school, wrongly accused of a crime to this day, demeaned by wizarding officials simply for his heritage … but he endures it, and, most times, does not even seem to mind. I have not that strength of character.” 

“His heritage?” 

“Well, have you seen him?”

“He’s … big?” 

“He’s half giant. And wizards loathe half-breeds.” 

Harry frowned. “Why? Are giants bad?” 

“Bad? No more than merfolk are bad, or acromantulae, or centaurs, or even wizards themselves.” 

“Hm.” They walked for a few moments in silence while Harry pondered this. “Is he emissary between the castle and the centaurs as well?” 

“Yes. There must always be one, for our territories are sovereign lands. We have no ambassador from the ministry—they leave it to the steward. Yet another insult. To us, not to Hagrid, who is honorable. Perhaps you’ll meet him one day. As equals.” 

“That would be nice,” Harry said softly. To speak to Hagrid. To ask him why,  so long ago, he had come home to his cabin and cried like his heart was breaking. 

Firenze ended up camping with him that night. They had talked so much during the day that by the time the sun set, Harry’s throat was quite sore. Firenze built up the fire and Harry took two beetles from his bag, offering to share. Firenze contributed a few bread rolls from his own supply. 

Full and happy, Harry bundled himself in his blanket and curled near the fire. Firenze looked up to the sky, visible in a gap between trees. “There,” he said, pointing. “Do you see Mars?”

“That bright one?” Harry asked sleepily. “Ava and Parime and I had an adventure on it. We wrote one, I mean.” 

“Fascinating. To humans and centaurs alike, Mars is a bringer of conflict. The brighter it shines, the more tumultuous.” 

Harry blinked up at the star. “Are we in trouble?” He didn’t feel troubled. He felt warm and safe. 

“Not yet. Perhaps not for a long while. It’s just something to keep an eye on.” 

“Is Araeo keeping an eye on it?” 

“We all are. Araeo sees things both near and far.” 

Harry pointed to a star. “What’s that one?” 

“That is Elnath. Some humans see Elnath as the tip of a bull’s horn. But centaurs see a winged serpent.”

small blue sprout

Dusk settled over the forest, and Harry pushed on.

Firenze had left him the previous morning bidding him take care and promising to convey to Araeo how happy Harry had been to hear from him. The rest of Harry’s trek had gone smoothly, and he had taken it slow, enjoying the small signs of summer: ambrosial flowers, chirping insects, the earthy, lively smell of the breeze. It was nice to be in familiar forest again, like walking with an old friend. 

He was very close to Hogwarts, now, close enough that it was silly to stop and make camp. He wondered if the basilisk could smell him coming. He liked to think that it could. 

A full moon rose above the treetops, bright enough that Harry could still make out his path. In the distance, a wolf howled. Opening his mouth, he inhaled the oncoming scent of the castle. It tasted familiar; it tasted like home. 

He would never get tired of coming home.

But he tasted something else, too. Something he hadn’t tasted in a while. It was … addictive. And terrible. Sweet and sour. It made his tongue numb and his throat burn.

And there was also something wretched. 

He closed his mouth and hunkered behind a tree, as still as he could be, listening hard. He heard it, now: delicate steps across leaves, cautious and slow. He looked around the tree and saw. A unicorn.

Just like that first time, the sight of it hurt him somehow. It made his heart beat too fast but his blood pump too slow. That horn spiraled up in a way he didn’t understand. He held his breath until it passed.

There faded the beauty and terror. But he could still taste something … malevolent. His heart, released from the unicorn’s thrall, beat hard in his ears. 

It came, snuffling and hunched, salivating, red-eyed, malformed somehow. A creature stalking. It loped after the unicorn, alternately on two legs and four. It passed him straight by.

Oh, god. Oh, help him. There was no choice. Ahead of him, the creature howled, and the unicorn screamed.

Harry threw his roll of silk to the ground and tore off his robe and bag. He yanked off the necklace of Chikkeritt’s fur and shoved it into his sock against his skin. 

His body vanished. He ran.

Ten paces, twenty paces—the sound of a furious struggle reached him, and when he finally caught them up the sight nearly made him stop in his tracks—the creature, clawed and horrid hands tangled in the unicorn’s mane, salivating teeth coming down onto its neck.

Harry yelled and launched himself forward, magic fizzling down his arms. He landed on the monster’s back, hands alight. The creature roared in pain, releasing the unicorn and twisting viciously. He was flung off its back and onto the ground. The creature looked around for him, confused, and then started to sniff. It narrowed in on his scent, a grin pulling the red corners of its mouth up around its teeth. It dropped to all fours and charged him.

He rolled out of the way and the monster missed him by a hair, but it made an immediate turn and and kept after him. Chikkeritt’s hair could hide his body, but not his smell. He was dead. 

The unicorn had gotten away, though, and so he could at least die with that knowledge. 

The beast pawed the ground, opened its jaws, and came for his neck. 

The future was a skyful of stars.

And then a massive form knocked the creature out of the air, sending it skidding along the forest floor. Harry gasped and looked up as Hagrid, looking like a creature himself in his hairy coat and wild beard, pointed his pink umbrella at the monster. 

The monster recovered fast, whipping upright—it was so desperately quick—and charging. Hagrid roared and a pulse of blue light exploded from his umbrella, knocking the creature back a pace, but only a pace. The creature dodged the next shot, lunging for Hagrid, and the steward threw his umbrella to the side and swung a heavy fist into the monster’s jaw. 

There was a crack, and the monster howled. It was quick, though, and as Hagrid’s swing took him forward a step, it raked at his side with its claws. Hagrid gave an animal roar, stumbling forward. The monster went in for the kill, and Harry, who had been watching, frozen, sent fire from his hands to set its tail alight.

The monster yipped and spun, and Hagrid recovered, and in a split second of opportunity brought his fists smashing down on its head. It gave a terrible growling groan, and Hagrid did it again, and again, until it lay still.

Then Hagrid put a hand to the claw wound on his side, took a shuddering breath, and fell to the ground. 

Harry crouched there on the forest floor, dizzy with adrenaline, trembling from head to foot. 

Something was caught on the werewolf’s claws. He snatched it with his fingertips, gagged, and gagged again, and crawled over to Hagrid, putting a hand to his neck. There was a pulse. He pulled back his coat. Three long, bloody gashes stretched across his stomach. Harry gasped in despair, and then froze. 

Mingled dread and elation crawled up his spine. His whole body flinched as it tried to flee and stay at the same time. He turned around, slowly.

The unicorn looked at him for a long moment—its eyes were a color unfathomable—and then lowered its head and touched its horn to the monster. The carcass turned to ash. 

It walked towards Harry. The closer it got, the dizzier he became. The lines of its face were so clear that it was painful. His body gave spasmodic jerks as he tried to run and forced himself to hold. 

The unicorn touched its horn to Hagrid’s wounds, and they closed. Simple as that. It dipped its head to Harry, and then it turned and left.

He gasped in relief as it disappeared from view, feeling its influence fading from his body. Hagrid’s breath was calm beside him. Harry put a hand on his head and patted his wild hair, absolutely exhausted. 

It was time to go home. 

But could he leave the steward?

Harry sighed. 

small blue sprout

Grunting, Harry lay Hagrid down on his bed with finality. It had been an awful hour through the woods, casting and re-casting wingardium leviosa to varied results that would have been comic under any other circumstance. Hagrid’s cowardly dog had come bolting out of the woods, hiding behind Harry until he opened Hagrid’s door, and was now sleeping fitfully below Hagrid’s bed. 

He dropped his pack and roll of silk on the ground and made a little fire to light the candles around the hut. 

There. Hagrid was home. His job was done. 

But he didn’t leave. Instead he wrestled Hagrid’s coat off, scrubbed the blood off it in his sink, and pinched the rips closed with elf magic. He slung it over the back of a massive wooden chair. 

The cabin was quite cozy. It was only one room, but there was a fireplace and small kitchen and large table. He stoked the smoldering fire and filled the kettle, hanging it over the flame. 

And then Hagrid sat up so abruptly that Harry jumped and gasped. The big man had one hand half-over his face, observing the cabin. 

“Bloody hell,” he murmured, and swung his legs out of bed. Harry dodged aside as he opened a cabinet to find a set of delicate floral teacups. He slammed one down on the counter, then rustled in a drawer for a sachet of tea. 

“Suppose I didn’t dream it,” Hagrid murmured, pulling the kettle from fire and pouring the water. “How the bloody hell I got back, though ….” He smacked his tea on the table so hard Harry didn’t know how it didn’t splash all over the place. He ran his fingertips over his recently-scrubbed jacket in confusion. “Tha’s odd … where’s my honey?” 

Harry realized Hagrid might be awake, but he wasn’t entirely … conscious yet. Smiling, Harry picked up the honey jar and brought it to the table.

“Thank you,” mumbled Hagrid, slumping at the table with a teaspoon that looked like a child’s toy in his hand. He stirred in a gallon of honey, drank half the tea in one gulp, and then lifted his shirt to look at his stomach where the wounds had been. 

“Bloody werewolves,” he groaned. “Bloody fucking werewolves.” 

So that’s what it had been. Harry, trying to climb onto the other chair without making it wobble, shuddered. 

“Fucking bastards,” Hagrid said, and then he was rifling in his pockets to pull out a handkerchief to blot his eyes. “Monsters. And still … well, can they help it? Maybe that one could. Given in to hatred, that one had. But the others … and by god, this one too! Didn’t we make him so!” He slammed his hand on the table, jostling his teacup. Harry jumped. “If they can’t help it, I’d bloody well understand, because who in this blasted world wants to help them?” 

Hagrid stood abruptly, wobbled and put a hand to his head. “Sometimes I think Aragog’s right,” he mumbled. 

Eyeing Hagrid uneasily, Harry slipped from his chair and grabbed his things, tucking himself away in a corner. The last thing he needed was for Hagrid to accidentally run into him.

Hagrid went to a box on the counter and pulled out parchment and quill, sitting heavily back down with it. “I oughter—I oughter write … Remus. By god, a miracle that man could even be schooled. Thanks to Dumbledore only, just like me. And god, look at us now. Look at us now!” He scratched a long line through the parchment, tearing it, and slammed the quill down. “Him, out there. Me, still here. Stuck. Both of us stuck.” 

He rose from the table again and opened his front door, staring out into the night. Harry took the opportunity to steal past him, ducking under his arm. He stood over the doorstep and watched Hagrid, swaying slightly, eyes unfocused. 

“Devil take those pure-blood bastards,” Hagrid said. “And god help anyone who’s not like ‘em. I should’ve got away when I could.” 

And he closed the door. 

Chapter Text

“Basilisk?”

“Snakeheart. How were your travels?” 

“Hard.” Harry pressed his hand to the spell barrier, hard enough to turn his fingers white. “Why didn’t you stay in the deeps?” 

“What?”

“After your siblings died. Why didn’t you stay? Why did you come up here?” 

“What happened out there?” the basilisk asked. “What makes you ask this?” 

Harry wanted to say the werewolf, but it wasn’t true. It was Hagrid, Hagrid’s words, Hagrid’s plight. Hagrid, who had taken the blame for the basilisk, who was not to blame at all, because it all came back to Riddle. 

But it was more, too. Everything he learned about the wizarding world made him think he didn’t want to be a part of it.

His heart ached. “Why did you leave?” 

The basilisk nudged its head into his side. “I felt life above me. Life of a kind I had never known before. Quick life, fierce life, that blazed like fire. The kind of life I feel in you.” 

“Even when that life did this?” He curled his hand into a fist against the spell, breathing hard. 

The basilisk pressed its nose to the curse, eyes closed. “Even then,” it said quietly. “For that life will undo it as well. Won’t you?” 

There was a lump in Harry’s throat. “Yes,” he said, leaning against the basilisk’s head. “I will.” 

Harry let out a slow breath, gently tracing the basilisk’s scales, when he heard a rustling. “Did you hear that?” 

“Oh, yes,” said the basilisk. “You have an owl.”

“An owl?” 

“I think so; I’m afraid to look too closely in case I kill it.” 

Harry peeked into the hall. A strangely familiar ball of fluff was circling around the room.

“Oh, I know him!” Harry said in surprise. “Pip!” He held out his arm, wrapping his robe double around it.

Pip landed, claws still pricking him through the layers, and gave him a look that suggested this was the worst place on God’s green earth for an owl. There was an envelope clutched in his beak. 

“Er.” Harry took the envelope. Pip gave a grateful squeak, rubbed his head against Harry’s chin, and took off, winging back out of the hall. “Weird.”

“You received … a letter?” 

Harry looked at it. 

Mr. H. Potter
Chamber of Secrets
Hogwarts Castle
Highlands, Scotland

“It’s addressed to me,” he said nervously. “Someone knows where I am? What’s the Chamber of Secrets?” 

“That’s what Salazar used to call this place,” said the basilisk. “I always thought it was very dramatic. Don’t panic yet. See what the letter says.” 

With trembling fingers, Harry opened the envelope and slid out the parchment. 

HOGWARTS SCHOOL of WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY
Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore
(Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc., Chf. Warlock,
Supreme Mugwump, International Confed. of Wizards)

Dear Mr. Potter,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Pleased find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.

Term begins on 1 September. We await your owl by no later than 31 July.

Yours sincerely,

Minerva McGonagall's Signature
Minerva McGonagall 

The basilisk's eye peering at a Hogwarts letter

“That’s what Salazar used to call this place,” said the basilisk. “I always thought it was very dramatic.”